SACRAMENTO — Among California's eight statewide constitutional offices, the superintendent of public instruction is a peculiar case.
Officially the state's only nonpartisan elected position, the head of public schools nonetheless has been a safely Democratic seat for decades, thanks at least in part to the backing of California's powerful teachers unions.
That bodes well for incumbent Tom Torlakson, a former Democratic legislator from Contra Costa County elected as state superintendent in 2010, who could ride a wave of strong labor support to re-election as early as the June 3 primary.
But surging support from advocates of educational change, the private sector and newspaper editorial boards for one of Torlakson's two challengers — former charter schools executive Marshall Tuck — has given a jolt to the race in the midst of a relatively quiet 2014 election season.
"This is going to be a low-turnout primary," said Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College, "and low-turnout primaries can take unusual turns."
The emergence of Tuck has made the state superintendent race into a potential proxy for a larger national debate over education policy that has pitted school unions against wealthy education advocates pushing for changes opposed by teachers.
Weeks before the primary, it already has drawn millions in union spending and interest from high-profile players including former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, one of Tuck's mentors.
It will be an uphill battle for Tuck, a political novice making his first run for public office. He is campaigning to turn around California's perennially low-ranking schools through new practices, such as greater curriculum flexibility for local districts, a longer review period before teachers obtain tenure and increased parent participation in Sacramento policymaking.
"It became very clear to me — that there were way too many barriers in Sacramento that made it difficult for principals and teachers to do their jobs," Tuck said. "Without changing the politics of education in Sacramento, we'll never educate all kids."
Torlakson disputes that characterization. He points to a new school funding formula that provides additional money to districts with a large population of low-income and English-learner students and the adoption of the Common Core curriculum standards as recent successes for California.
Torlakson said that, in a second term, he would focus on continuing to make those programs work, as well as developing California's early-learning, career technical education and after-school programs as the state emerges from years of budget cuts.
"We've been moving forward in the right way," he said. "It's not time to take a step backward."
Tuck faces several challenges in his quest to unseat Torlakson: He is virtually unknown outside of Los Angeles, where he most recently worked under Villaraigosa to lead the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a nonprofit that took over 17 of the city's lowest-performing campuses beginning in 2008. Villaraigosa endorsed Tuck last month.
Several of Tuck's proposals, including using student test scores in teacher evaluations and eliminating seniority-based layoffs, are strongly opposed by teachers.
While Tuck also identifies as a Democrat, he isn't the establishment candidate. Torlakson has secured the support of the California Democratic Party and many of its leading figures.
Tuck said he is challenging an incumbent from his own party because it didn't make sense to wait for the "politically perfect" moment to run for state superintendent.
"Californians have had enough of being where we are," he said. "I know that there's a real environment for change."
The third candidate in the race is Republican Lydia Gutierrez, a teacher from Long Beach who has been an outspoken critic of the Common Core standards. She mounted an unsuccessful state superintendent campaign in 2010 and has maintained a low profile this time, raising only a couple of thousand dollars so far.
"If Gutierrez appeared on the ballot as a Republican, Gutierrez would have a huge advantage" over Tuck, GOP consultant Rob Stutzman said.
With little name recognition and no party guidance, however, voters who would normally flock to Gutierrez might instead turn to a higher-profile candidate such as Tuck, who still could offer an alternative to the Democratic establishment, especially in a top-two runoff.
"We're entering a new era of politics for Republicans where they're probably going to want to consider independent or moderate Democrats," Stutzman said. Tuck would "have a pretty broad coalition of support if he were to make the runoff in November."
As a nonpartisan office, the state superintendent of public instruction race can uniquely be won in the primary if a candidate gets more than 50% of the vote.
No public polling exists to show how the candidates are faring with the electorate, so the June primary could be the first indication of whether a real race is shaping up for November — or whether there will be one at all.
Democratic political strategist Garry South expects the small field will allow Torlakson to win the primary outright. "There's not enough candidates in the running, in my view, to pull enough votes away from Torlakson to keep him below 50%," he said.
And even if he does make the runoff, the odds are not in Tuck's favor, "due to the size of California and the great expense of communicating to 18 million registered voters" in some of the nation's most expensive media markets.
"Where does Marshall Tuck get five or six million dollars to run ads?" South asked.
Go to www.fresnobee.com/elections for more about the June 3 primary election, including:
Voter Guide: Central San Joaquin Valley candidates share their platforms
Get ready: List of key dates and how to contact elections offices
More coverage: Bee stories about other races and issues
The reporter can be reached at akoseff@sacbee. com or (916) 321-5236. Follow him on Twitter @akoseff.