School Superintendent Race is Referendum on Teachers Unions

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

While the battle for Superintendent of Public Instruction between two Democrats is drawing attention because it is the most hotly contested statewide political race, in the end the contest may not so much depend on voters feelings about the candidates as how they feel about the power wielded by teachers unions.

The California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers are all in for their man, incumbent Superintendent Tom Torlakson.

Challenger Marshall Tuck, a former charter school executive, will tell anyone that listens he is not anti-union, that he has only worked in union schools and supports teachers right to organize. Still his candidacy is anathema to the unions because of his reform platform.

The office the men seek is not powerful but the money that is pouring into the race, both directly to the candidates and in independent expenditures, is substantial. There is more at stake here than the elected official who will occupy the office. It is a test if the teachers unions, clearly the state’s most powerful special interest, will lose influence if their chosen candidate is defeated. Legislators who often bow to the will of the unions will take notice of the race’s result.

The highly visible issue that separates the candidates is their individual reactions to a Los Angeles Superior Court’s decision in the Vergara vs. California teacher tenure case.

When Los Angeles judge, Rolf M. Treu, found that the conditions in the schools resulting from the current tenure laws “shocked the conscience” to the extent that students were being denied their constitutional rights, Tuck applauded while Torlaskon appealed.

For the unions, seniority rules and tight controls over if and when teachers lose their jobs are sacred articles. They want Judge Treu’s decision overturned. And, they don’t want the head of the state’s school establishment to be a Vergara decision supporter.

Another lawsuit that could have even greater consequences to the unions is working its way through the courts. In Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association,  ten teachers are challenging the constitutionality of laws that allow teachers’ unions to collect fees from teachers. The plaintiffs want to overturn an automatic payroll deduction process for teachers who don’t want a portion of their fees to go for political activities to have to “opt out” of funding those activities.

A decision against CTA in Friedrichs could raise havoc with the unions if many teachers decide to keep their money and not turn it over to the union. The unions want an ally in the superintendent’s office if that were to happen.

With Tuck holding a lead of 31% to 28% in the most recent Field Poll, there is a lot of room for both candidates to grow.

There is more to the race, of course, and more to the candidates’ platforms. The teaching profession is still highly respected. What will be tested in this race is the teachers’ unions’ influence over the direction of state education.

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