SACRAMENTO, Calif. – California is again recording the most expensive state superintendent election in history, with a cast of billionaires who are outspending the teachers unions in support of a former charter schools executive.
The California State Superintendent of Public Instruction is a nonpartisan office that is featuring two Democrats vying for the job. It has no legislative authority but would be an important symbolic victory for the charter school movement. The role has long been eyed as a school choice prize for education policy watchers who see its potential to influence state education policy nationally.
California is one of just 13 states with an elected state superintendent. South Carolina this year not only has a superintendent race but also a ballot question asking voters for a Constitutional amendment to make it an appointed position.
Half of the top 10 most expensive state superintendent election races in the country have been in California, according to an AP analysis of data compiled by the National Institute on Money in Politics. Those top-dollar elections have all occurred since 2002, a period that has since marked a trailblazing era for publicly-funded, privately-run schools in the largest state in the country, which also has the most charter schools and the most robust charter laws in the country.
This election cycle has already netted $8 million in direct campaign contributions between the two candidates.
Marshall Tuck, who previously led the nonprofit Partnership for Los Angeles Schools and the charter network Green Dot Public Schools, has raised $5 million in direct campaign contributions, while the union-backed state Assemblyman Tony Thurmond has netted $3.1 million.
But the real money in this race flows through outside committees to the tune of $44 million and counting. By way of comparison just over $1 million has been spent in independent expenditures in the California U.S. Senate race, according to the Center for Responsive Politics
Tuck has benefited from more than $32 million in outside spending. The largest individual donor backing him is Bill Bloomfield, who has spent nearly $6 million to support Tuck. Bloomfield, a frequent political donor from Southern California, said that he’s known Tuck for years for his work with low-income children.
“I’m confident that he can’t and won’t be bought and sold by any special interest,” Bloomfield said in an email.
Other leading donors include Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, philanthropist Eli Broad, Gap retail founder Doris Fisher and Walmart company heirs including Carrie Walton Penner, Jim C. Walton and Alice Walton. They’ve piled money into Tuck-supporting groups, including EdVoice for the Kids PAC, which has spent nearly all its money this cycle supporting Tuck.
Tuck said he wants to give more districts waivers from the provisions of the California education code. He says money is essential to reach voters in the nation’s most populous state.
“I think it’s the most important issue that the state is not doing a good job on,” Tuck said of public education.
Groups backing Thurmond have spent more than $12 million in independent expenditures, with more than $8 million of that coming from the California Teachers Association. The rest has largely come from the California Democratic Party and other unions, including the California Federation of Teachers and the Service Employees International Union.
California Teachers Association president Eric Heins said the union wants to see Thurmond in office because he’ll continue to implement the education reforms already in place.
“It makes a difference when teachers are in the room and the union is in the room at every level of education,” Heins said.
Thurmond and Tuck both say securing more money for public schools is a top priority and oppose for-profit charter schools.
The winner gets a job with influence but not much direct power over education policy, which is largely set by the governor, Legislature and Board of Education, whose members are appointed by the governor.
Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, San Francisco’s former mayor, is widely expected to be elected governor next month.
Newsom has called for more accountability and a moratorium on charter school expansions, a stark departure from the past decade of charter-friendly policies in the state. He’s garnered teacher union support while also mobilizing deep-pocketed charter school supporters.
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst and University of Southern California professor, said the state superintendent race has become “a grudge match” and “raw political warfare.” Tuck winning the seat would offer a perception of power and influence for the charter school movement, and the billionaires’ money is a show of force to prove that they may be down, but not out of the political conversation in the years to come.
“It prevents them from being totally steamrolled by the teachers union. The message is ‘You need to listen to us too,” Bebitch Jeffe said.