When it comes to education in California, nothing is simple. The state’s system or education finance is a labyrinth of complicated formulas based on income and sales tax revenues, and fund shifts from local districts, to the state, and back again. Only slightly less complicated is the state’s diffuse and fragmented education governance structure.
The governor appoints an education secretary, but it is a job with no real power. The governor also appoints members to the state Board of Education. Those appointees are subject to Senate confirmation. But the board is led by a state superintendent, who is elected by voters across the state.
Among the eight statewide constitutional offices up for grabs this year, the state superintendent of public instruction is unique. It is the only statewide race that is non-partisan, and the only race that, theoretically, could be settled in the June election.
If any candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote on June 8, the election will be settled. Barring that, the top two vote-getters will advance to a November run-off.
This year’s field is lead by two Democratic lawmakers – Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, and Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch. Former superintendent Larry Aceves is among the other nine candidates in the field.
This race at times has felt like a proxy war. Romero, the chairwoman of the Senate Education committee has run afoul of labor unions for her push to make school districts more accountable, a buzz word during the Pete Wilson/Gray Davis years of education reform. Romero’s push for California to apply for federal funds under the Race to the Top program angered teachers’ unions, who felt the funds came with too many strings attached.
Torlakson, meanwhile, has aggressively courted union support, and has secured the backing of both the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers.
Aceves has the backing of the Association of School Administrators, who have spent more than $400,000 on an independent expenditure campaign on his behalf.
But that money pales in comparison to the funds being spent by unions and their chief Sacramento rival, EdVoice.
Torlakson has received more than $1.4 million in funding from labor unions. The vast majority of the funds – more than $1.2 million – has come from the California Teachers Association, which has spent money on radio ads on Torlakson’s behalf.
EdVoice, the Silicon Valley-based education reform group which was co-founded by NetFlix CEO and former state school board member Reed Hastings and Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, has spent nearly $1.5 million for Romero, and is running television ads boosting her candidacy.
The independent expenditure spending in this race has dwarfed any spending from the candidate themselves. Romero has spent $605,000 so far this year, and had just $28,000 in her campaign account, according to a May 22 spending report.
Torlakson spent about $256,000 through May 22, and has more than $318,000 left in his campaign warchest.