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California Primary Sets Up Battle Between Teachers Unions And Reformers

Tuesday’s primary election has set the stage for one of the costliest educational races in the country’s history, as two Democrats go head to head to become state superintendent in California.

The race highlights the growing divide in the Democratic Party between the party’s traditional labor union base and aggressive reformers who believe entrenched unions are a major cause of the problems ailing public education.

Incumbent Tom Torlakson came in first by a wide margin during Tuesday night’s jungle primary, winning about 46.9 percent of the vote, compared to fellow Democrat Marshall Tuck’s 28.6 percent and Republican Lydia Gutierrez’s 24.4 percent. However, since Torlakson will fall short of the 50 percent threshold needed to win the office right now, the race will now proceed to a general election in November that will pit Torlakson directly against Tuck.

While both candidates are Democrats, the race figures to be heated as it pits California’s powerful unions against reformers who are fed up with California’s test scores and student outcomes and demanding radical changes.

Torlakson has the strong backing of the state’s powerful and gigantic teachers union, the California Teachers Association (CTA), which has largely resisted most popular reform proposals.

Tuck, meanwhile, has claimed the reform mantle, pushing for new rules that would make it easier to fire teachers and devolve more power to local school boards. He has also openly attacked the “disproportionate influence” the CTA enjoys in California’s educational system.

Despite Torlakson’s big win on Tuesday, he has reason to be nervous. November’s higher turnout will dilute the influence of Torlakson’s hardcore teachers union supporters, and the extended public campaign will give Tuck more time to boost his name recognition. With Tuck already enjoying the endorsement of almost every newspaper in the state, his position is likely to only improve with time.

The race has already proven remarkably expensive, with the California Teachers Association spending over $4.5 million on the race, including millions on negative ads that label Tuck as a “Wall Street banker” for spending time in his twenties at an investment firm.

Tuck doesn’t lack of money himself, having attracted big money from business leaders such as Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad. With California’s gubernatorial race unlikely to be competitive, the race could end up being the state’s most expensive with costs rising into the tens of millions.

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