In the June 3 contest to lead the state's public schools, the two front-runners represent opposing forces within education over how best to improve student achievement.
Tom Torlakson, the Democratic incumbent, champions teachers and their unions, which dislike the nation's growing reliance on standardized tests, call for more funding and fight against eroding job protections.
Marshall Tuck, the favorite of a core of philanthropists and activists, wants more limited job security for instructors as a way to weed out weak performers and improve the teaching corps. Also a Democrat, he talks of shaking up a system that has settled for gradual improvement in test scores and graduation rates. Before raising new revenue, he said, he would spend existing dollars more effectively.
"I try to channel my energy on things that can make a big difference. I'm focused on the big picture," says state Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)
The nonpartisan race for the state superintendent of public instruction has become a window into differing, and influential, visions for public schools.
"These fights are very much playing out in the states, between the union wing and the education-reform wing," said Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.
"This is probably the highest-profile referendum that we're going to see this year," said Hess, who generally sides with the union critics he regards as reformers. See video ad below.