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California superintendent race shows Democrats split on school reform

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - The race to be California's superintendent of education is shaping up to be an expensive contest between fellow Democrats - one backed by the party establishment and teachers unions, and the other calling for school reform.

Former charter school executive Marshall Tuck said on Friday he planned to unleash campaign ads and social media outreach next week to unseat incumbent state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, a former lawmaker and teacher who has the backing of unions and the state party organization.

"We have 38 days until the primary," said Tuck, who has the backing of former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and funding from billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad. "We want to make sure as many people in the state as possible know about the importance of this position."

Tuck's campaign takes place as six states are set to elect new superintendents of schools this year, and 13 more are electing governors who are expected to appoint new superintendents when they take office.

The contests are getting underway against a backdrop of questions raised by education activists who want to roll back some union protections for teachers, establish local control of curriculum and spending decisions, and in some cases, use public funding to support private schools.

The suggestions have roiled teachers unions and many establishment Democrats.

In Georgia, a Democratic candidate who supported charter schools left the race for lack of support from the party. In California, the Democratic party voted last month to endorse incumbent Torlakson.

EXPENSIVE CAMPAIGN

Torlakson has raised just over $1 million for his campaign, not counting a $60,000 independent expenditure reported earlier this month by the California Federation of Teachers for a campaign mailer.

Challenger Tuck is running as a Democrat despite no party endorsement and has hired Democratic operatives to work on his campaign. Since announcing his candidacy last summer, he has raised nearly $800,000, according to the state.

"He doesn't support school vouchers, he believes in separation of church and state and he wants to keep the money in public schools," not privatize them, said his campaign manager Cynara Lilly.

Tuck said in an interview on Friday he supports teachers' right to organize, but unions have "too big a seat at the table." He opposes rules that require teachers with the least seniority to be the first fired during layoffs, and is against granting teachers tenure after just two years on the job.

Policy experts in California say that increasingly, Democrats are supporting elements of the reform agenda. At the national level, the call to tie teacher evaluations to students' performance on standardized tests has been championed by the Democratic Obama administration, as well as leading Republicans.

The ranks of those interested in education reform are larger than in the past, with interests that are more nuanced, said Ted Lempert, president of the advocacy group Children Now, which has not taken a position in the race.

"A lot of the initial interest did come out of Republicans and conservatives but it's now really evolved to include people who are really also on the left," said Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California.

Torlakson has supported such elements of the reform agenda as stricter academic standards and a new plan by California Governor Jerry Brown to give schools more control over the state money they receive. But he is opposed to privatization or rolling back teachers' job protections.

He questions Tuck's Democratic credentials, pointing to his billionaire backer and a former job on Wall Street.

"It doesn't surprise me that he's trying to position himself in a different way," said Paul Hefner, Tuck's campaign manager. "He is certainly not talking about the fact that he's a former Wall Street investment banker."

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Michael Perry)

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