The $30 Million Education Race That Went Completely Under The Nation's Radar

Thu Nov 06, 2014 15:42:01PM

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius reads to a group of 4-year old Head Start students.By: HHSgov
Money ruled these midterms, as pundit Jon Stewart of 'The Daily Show' pointed out. And in a big way. A $4 Billion big way. Yes, that's how much cash was inserted into the combined races for all the candidates in all the races this midterm season. And as Stewart also pointed out, it seems that 'ideas' were not on the ballot this year. The GOP largely ran on an anti-Obama message that was oddly reminiscent of Obama's very own now infamous slogans of 'hope and change', although their version included running Obama under the bus, and any Democrat that even kind of resembled Obama politics. A lazy premise, but an overwhelmingly effective one once it was all said and done.

There was one race however where 'ideas' were on the table, in a big way. And a whole lot of money was spent as well. An enormous amount of cash actually, especially for the race in question: California State School Superintendent. The price tag for the 2014 race for this strangely coveted position racked up an eye-popping $30 Million!

Now to put that in perspective, the California Governor's race between Gov. Jerry Brown (D) and Neel Kashkari (R) only spent a combined $10.1 Million. That means that the Superintendent job garnered 3 times more campaign investment than the race for the Governor of California. That's hard to believe, especially when you realize that to be the State School Superintendent of California means that you really don't have ultimate authority over the education process. The position is that of an intermediary and has long since been seen as more or less symbolic than powerful in the education world.

So why did so much money fall into this seemingly insignificant state race, a race where more was spent than ALL the other races in California this year combined? In short, fundamental differences over how to educate our youth.

To set this up just a bit more, the two people that ran for this position were Tom Torlakson (D) and Marshall Tuck (D). They are both Democrats. This was a nonpartisan race. So this was not necessarily a political battle, in the current traditional sense. It's more accurate to label the differences here as ideological, or philosophical in nature. And those differences are important to discuss, as they are a microcosm for the country in when it comes to talking about education.

Education Reform vs. The Establishment.

Tom Torlakson represents the 'establishment', in this scenario. He is the incumbent. He was heavily backed by the establishment's base, the teacher's unions. He represents the idea that more government funds should be inserted into the public school systems, and that teachers of course need to make more money and be better taken care of. For starters anyways, that's who he is and the side of the debate he embodies.

Marshall Tuck therefore is the education reformer. He is for charter schools, empowering parents, and for taking government out of the education process as much as possible. He and his backers want major change to the California education system, including re-hauling many of the teacher union perks, a big one being teacher tenure.

To know the candidates of this race is half the equation. But it's most telling to understand why so much money was spent on this race when you consider the backers, and what's at stake, even if on the surface it only appears to be a largely symbolic superintendent position.

The teacher's unions in California (and all across the country really as the money poured in from everywhere) are surprisingly powerful, proactive and financially capable of throwing millions around when they see the need. Or, at least being able to raise ridiculous amounts at the drop of a hat. That's part of why the spending got so out of hand. When Tuck started to show promise to really battle for this position, coupled with his loud and proud message that he meant to shake up the system with major talks of change and reform, the unions stepped up to stomp out the competition.

Once they did, Tuck fired back with support from "well-heeled donors who are behind the national charter-school movement and the effort to weaken teacher tenure".

In a sense, this race ended up devolving into somewhat of a pissing contest between unions and reformers all across the country, and didn't have much to do at all with how we actually educate our youth in America. As with most election races, money and power clouded what the original conversation actually was: how do we fundamentally educate students? What's the correct philosophy? What system works the best? Is public government spending on education the right course, or can privatized education provide a better model?

All difficult questions that likely can be argued either way, and are likely dependent upon where one lives and how well the current system is working in the first place. In California's case, Marshall Tuck points out that his state currently ranks 45th in effectiveness of education to their youth. That's like being tied for almost last place. And in a state that leads the nation in so many categories of progressive culture, they are simply failing to offer quality education to their young students.

Marshall Tuck concedes to Tom Torlakson in state schools chief race

In the end, Tuck lost. Or Torlakson won, 52% over 48%. However you view it, this is a conversation of not just California's education models of effectiveness, but of the nation's. That $30 Million wasn't just from Cali. New York, Illinois, Ohio and many other states from all over the country poured money into this one seemingly insignificant race for a reason. The stakes are high. The battle is real. The division is ever-growing. And neither side has yet delivered a knock out blow, showing their way is best.
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