Would you believe it? The race for California’s Superintendent of Public Instruction is one of the most contentious races in California and is sucking up millions and millions of dollars’ worth of last minute donations to buy TV advertising. Teachers unions in California and their supporters are funding the campaign of Tom Torlakson, the incumbent and a former school teacher running on a platform of improving the public schools. Marshall Tuck—a promoter of school choice, former CEO of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, and former president of Green Dot charter schools—is being funded by big moneyed interests from across the United States—people who generally support corporate school reform and charterization.
The Vergara lawsuit is certainly one of the issues. Vergara was launched by Silicon Valley telecommunications entrepreneur David Welch, who seeks to eliminate all tenure for public school teachers. The case was decided in a local court in favor of Welch’s plaintiffs last summer and appealed by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, along with appeals from California’s teachers unions. Tuck says he will immediately cancel the state’s appeal if he is elected.
And, under Torlakson, California was one of the few states that chose not to apply for a No Child Left Behind waiver from the U.S. Department of Education. According to Stephanie Simon, who recently covered the policy differences between the two candidates for Politico, “Torlakson said the reforms the federal government demanded were unacceptable. They would have cost the state $2 billion to carry out, he said. And they would have required him to impose policies that he believes are wrong for California, such as requiring teachers to be evaluated in part by their students’ test scores.”
What ought to interest all of us in this election is the mountain of money being spent. According to the newsletter Edsource Today, “the race for California state superintendent of public instruction has been fueled by a combined $24 million in total campaign spending…. Outside groups not affiliated with either candidate represent the bulk of that spending—close to $19.4 million on ads and mailers on behalf of the candidates.”
EdSource Today explains: “By law, donors are limited in how much they can directly contribute to candidates. Individuals are allowed to contribute up to $6,800 for a primary election and another $6,800 for a general election… There are no limits on donors to outside groups, identified on campaign disclosure reports as ‘independent expenditure committees.’ These committees have intensified their efforts in the past few weeks. A new committee supporting Tuck, ‘Parents and Teachers for Tuck for State Superintendent 2014,’ formed in early October and has spent about $7.5 million on ads. It is the outside group that has spent the most of any of the committees supporting Tuck.”
Thanks to Diane Ravitch’s blog, we have a link to a state website that has been tracking political contributions in this race. It is possible to see the amounts that have been donated just this month and the names of the donors. In her post, Ravitch names some of the donors and amounts: former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, $250,000; Eli Broad, $1,000,000; Alice Walton, $450,000; Carrie Penner of the Walton family $500,000; Doris Fisher (The Gap), $950,000; Arthur Rock (member of Teach for America’s board), $250,000; and Laurene Powell Jobs, $500,000. EdSource Today points out that William Bloomfield, Jr, who has donated $2 million since the first of October is a California real estate developer. The state website also reports a donation of $300,000 from John Arnold—the former Enron trader whose foundation has launched a campaign against public employee pensions.
All this money for TV advertising and none of it trickling down. It almost makes you long for the old-fashioned kind of corrupt politics. When guys were sent out with street money to buy votes, at least the people who got the money probably could use a few dollars. Last week economist Paul Krugman in a column, Plutocrats Against Democracy, concluded, “The truth is that a lot of what’s going on in American politics is, at root, a fight between democracy and plutocracy. And it’s by no means clear which side will win.”