By Allysia Finley
Sept. 10, 2014 4:26 p.m. ET
Democrats are favored—in most cases, heavily—to win all statewide offices in California in November. But Democratic school reformer Marshall Tuck is threatening to shake up the Sacramento status quo by challenging state Superintendent Tom Torlakson.
A new Field Poll shows Mr. Tuck, a former president of the Los Angeles-based Green Dot charter-school network, leading the incumbent by three points. Central to Mr. Tuck’s campaign is the Vergara court case, which challenges the state’s teacher tenure, dismissal and seniority laws. The case was brought by nine public-school students who argue that the laws concentrate ineffective teachers in schools serving predominantly low-income and minority students.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson Reuters
In June a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge agreed and struck down the statutes for violating the equal protection clause of the state constitution. Mr. Torlakson last month appealed the decision. “We do not fault doctors when the emergency room is full,” he said. “We do not criticize the firefighter whose supply of water runs dry. Yet while we crowd our classrooms and fail to properly equip them with adequate resources, those who filed and support this case shamelessly seek to blame teachers.”
Mr. Tuck retorted that Mr. Torlakson “stands with his Sacramento funders and not with students.” Notwithstanding a small phalanx of well-heeled supporters, Mr. Tuck will be at a funding disadvantage against the state teachers’ unions, which will have millions to spend propping up the incumbent.
Yet one surprising finding from the Field Poll is that Democrats favor Mr. Tuck by seven points while Republicans and independents give an edge to the incumbent. One reason may be that the superintendent’s race is nominally nonpartisan, so the candidates’ party affiliations don’t appear on the ballot. Republicans may be more likely to punch ballots for an incumbent against a little-known challenger.
But the same might not be true of Democrats, many of whom live in poor neighborhoods and have first-hand experiences with the state’s failing public schools. Republicans are more likely to live in suburbs with better schools. Notably, Mr. Tuck leads Mr. Torlakson 42% to 20% among Latinos and 61%-16% among blacks, even as he trails among whites. We suspect Mr. Torlakson polls best among voters 65 and over because most don’t have kids in school.
It’s also interesting that union households favor Mr. Tuck by a 2-to-1 margin, which suggests that even rank-and-file union members are tired of the education status quo. The superintendent’s race may be the most competitive on the fall ballot.