There wasn’t much for progressive supporters of public schooling to be pleased about in the results of Tuesday’s election. In two races, however, public education became the pivotal issue, and in both, the candidate who won had shaped the campaign around support for public education and public school teachers.
Tom Corbett will be remembered as the governor committed to starving the poorest of Pennsylvania’s school districts—most notably the state’s largest school district in Philadelphia but also places like Allentown and Reading. This blog has extensively covered the tragedy in Philadelphia, where Corbett’s appointed School Reform Commission recently tried to cancel the teachers’ contract (The case is currently under appeal.) after the legislature allowed the district to levy a $2-per-pack cigarette tax instead of raising the state’s contribution back to where it was before the recession in 2008 or equalizing school funding.
Here is the analysis of Thomas Fitzgerald and Angela Couloumbis, writers for the Philadelphia Inquirer: “In January 2011, with the effects of the recession lingering, the new Pennsylvania governor needed to find billions of dollars in his first budget. He had promised not to raise taxes, though. So he cut. State funding for public education took a $1 billion whack, amid the expiration of federal stimulus money. That may have sealed Gov. Corbett’s fate, according to political analysts sifting the wreckage of the Republican’s historic loss. ‘Signing the Grover Norquist pledge ruined Corbett, just killed him,’ said Democratic media strategist Neil Oxman, referring to the Washington antitax activist who is influential in the GOP. Corbett could have levied a severance tax on natural gas, or moved money from other programs to soften the blow. He did not, while he reduced business taxes an estimated $400 million and placed more than $600 million in reserve.”
In a race where the Philadelphia school funding crisis, the state’s cuts to public education overall, and Corbett’s attempt to blame Philadelphia’s teachers and save money by cancelling their contract were extensively covered by the press, Corbett secured only 45 percent of the vote on Tuesday, compared to Democrat Tom Wolf’s 55 percent.
Then there was the race none of us would have expected to learn anything about—the battle between incumbent and former high school biology teacher Tom Torlakson and darling of the plutocrats, Marshall Tuck for state superintendent of public instruction in California. Lindsey Layton of the Washington Post reported on Monday that recent spending in what is a traditionally quiet contest had brought the expenditure total in 2014 up to $30 million, three times more than was spent in the race for governor of California. After Torlakson’s victory, Layton analyzed the result: “In a white-hot battle in California that is considered a proxy fight for deep national divisions in the Democratic Party over education, Tom Torlakson was narrowly reelected as the state’s schools superintendent, beating back Marshall Tuck by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent. The $30 million downballot contest generated three times as much spending as the race for governor, with money pouring in from around the country. Torlakson was heavily supported by teachers unions while Tuck had the backing of billionaire philanthropists such as former New York mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs.” This blog covered spending in the race for California state superintendent here.
The Vergara lawsuit against job protections for school teachers became the primary issue in this race. A judge found for the plaintiffs and against due process for teachers early in the summer, and Torlakson, as state superintendent, filed one of the appeals in the case. Tuck said he would cancel the appeal, if elected. Analyzing Torlakson’s victory for the Sacramento Bee, Alexei Kosell writes: “Much of the debate centered on Vergara v. California, a lawsuit alleging that the state’s teacher tenure and dismissal laws protect bad teachers and disproportionately deprive low-income and minority students of a quality education. Tuck built his campaign on the case, galvanizing supporters after a judge declared the policies unconstitutional in June. He wielded the ruling against Torlakson like a bludgeon, spending most of his public appearances urging California to reject the ‘status quo’ and get behind the decision. His position made Tuck an enemy of the California Teachers Association, which also opposes other policy changes Tuck advocated, such as using student test scores in teacher evaluations.”
The fact that former CNN anchor Campbell Brown has launched a new organization, Partners for Educational Justice, to attack due process rights for teachers and to file Vergara-type lawsuits across the states adds to the national implications of the recent Tuck-Torlakson race in California. The Washington Post‘s Layton explains the nationwide implications of the race: “Their differences symbolized the national tensions within the Democratic Party over the best way to educate kids. Torlakson pushed for more investment in public schools, does not believe teachers should be judged by student test scores, and said charter schools need more oversight. Tuck wants to expand public charter schools, argued for more accountability for teachers and said California’s teacher tenure laws are an obstacle to improving schools.”
In California, after absorbing the contents of 30 million dollars’ worth of brochures and TV ads and after listening to both candidates over many months, the voters chose Tom Torlakson, the incumbent and the supporter of public education and public school teachers.