Six months ago, Marshall Tuck was booed off the stage at the California Democratic Party convention.
“I go onstage, and I didn’t get a word out,” recalled Tuck, a nominal Democrat running against the party’s endorsed candidate for state superintendent of public instruction. “I start with ‘I …’ and just, ‘Boooo!’ I was booed the entire time — the timer ends, and at the end, they’re like, ‘Get off the stage, buddy.’”
Last week, Tuck laughed about the experience during an interview in his windowless Culver City campaign headquarters, recounting what happened when he got home.
“I told my wife and son I got booed,” he said, “and for like a week, every time I’d start to say something, my kid would just immediately say, ‘Boooo!’”
Not the union label. Tuck’s rough treatment by Dem activists reflects the dynamic of the campaign for the open superintendent’s post, a competitive, big-dollar race that represents a kind of proxy war in the long-running debate over education reform.
He faces Bay Area Assemblymember Tony Thurmond, who enjoys the backing both of the ruling Democratic Party and the California Teachers Association, Sacramento’s most powerful special-interest organization, which views Tuck’s proposals with alarm.
Garrulous, intense, and boyish looking, the 45-year-old Tuck worked on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley before moving into education administration. Allied with then mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, he became CEO of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a controversial public-private enterprise that ran more than a dozen struggling schools. Prior to that, he was president of the Green Dot Public Schools charter management organization, which created 10 new charter high schools in poor neighborhoods.
Now he seeks to become the first superintendent in 30 years who is not a professional pol (including Santa Barbara’s Jack O’Connell, who served 2003-2011). Not since former teacher Bill Honig’s turbulent stint in the 1980s have voters elected a nonpolitician as the state’s highest-ranking K-12 official, an allegedly nonpartisan post with limited powers but considerable bully-pulpit potential.
“Honig was the last educator,” Tuck said. “When his term ended, that’s where it turned really from educator to politicians.”
Behind the boos. There’s no mystery why Tuck got mugged at the convention.
In 2014, he lost a challenge for superintendent to former legislator Tom Torlakson, who’s now termed out, but remained a prominent advocate for charter alternatives to troubled public schools. Tuck is backed by wealthy private sector reform advocates (viz. former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, L.A. philanthropist Eli Broad, and Walmart heirs Jim and Alice Walton), and his agenda includes:
- Charters. Tuck believes that nonprofit charters, with flexibility and freedom from state operational mandates, often can succeed where low-performing schools fail: “I believe nonprofit charter schools in high-poverty areas have a role to play in a public education system — and they don’t.”
- Seniority. Tuck has backed several class-action lawsuits challenging laws requiring that teacher layoffs be determined by seniority: “I know, and the data shows, that [these laws] disproportionately impact our highest-needs kids, because our kids of color have younger teachers.”
- Tenure. Teachers currently gain tenure, with protection from dismissal, after two years. Tuck wants the period extended, citing the four-year requirement at community colleges and seven at UCs: “It needs to be longer and harder to get.”
- Pay. Tuck says he strongly opposes Torlakson’s decision allowing local districts to use state funds aimed at instruction for underprivileged students for across-the-board teacher raises. “I believe that we need to pay teachers and principals that work in our highest-poverty schools more, because they’re harder jobs.”
Big bucks. Amazing but true: More was spent in the 2014 election for superintendent than in the governor’s race.
This year, in a four-candidate primary, Tuck beat Thurmond 37.0 to 35.6 percent, spending $2.2 million to his rival’s $1.4 million. The real money, however, flowed from independent expenditure committees: Charter school backers forked out more than $7 million for Tuck, while the CTA and allies spent $3 million for Thurmond.
“This is a campaign about improving our public schools,” Tuck said, “It’s not going to be easy.”