The voting outcomes on the ballot measures were heartening because of the voters’ rejection of both corporate attempts to buy a nice, shiny new law—namely Prop. 16 and 17. It is also cheering that the electorate embraced of ANYTHING that might even have a tiny shred of a chance at changing our state’s dysfunctional, money-driven and paralyzingly partisan system.
For me, however, the one truly dispiriting outcome of this June primary was the fact that State Senator Gloria Romero did not make it into the runoff for State Superintendent of Public Instruction
Instead, the top vote-getter was a virtual unknown, Larry Aceves, a former school superintendent who was lured out of retirement for the task by the association of California school administrators, which put $400,000 into his mailers. Amazingly, Aceves got 18.9 percent of the votes cast by the 3.2 million who went to the polls, no doubt at least somewhat helped by having the words “former school superintendent’ after his name, while the other two had IDs that seemed less obviously education-related (even though Romero’s also a tenured college professor).
Oh, yeah, and Aceves was also helped by the fact that he was endorsed by the Los Angeles Times.
The number two vote getter, Tom Torlakson, had a more obvious reason for whatever success he enjoyed as he was the darling of the state’s powerful teachers’ unions, who threw substantial support behind him. Torlakson, who won 18 percent of the vote, was opposed to charter schools, opposed to the parents’ choice measure, and opposed to the federal Race to the Top program.
Romero came in third with 17.2 percent of the bote. Unlike Aceves and Toriakson who both arguably represented the status quo, Romero was the reform candidate in the race.
The Daily News, which endorsed her, put it succinctly:
Tom Torlakson, a liberal Democrat from the Bay Area, is backed by the teachers unions—a group that has worked strenuously to thwart reform in California at every turn.
Larry Aceves, a retired schools superintendent and teacher from the Bay Area, is backed by district superintendents across the state and the administrators association. He’s been a part of the same education structure for three decades that has overseen the downfall of what was once an envied public educational system.
The third candidate, Sen. Gloria Romero-–and the only one of the three from Southern California – is supported by a collection of teachers, students, administrators, parents and everyone else who supports serious reform of education in California.
Though part of the established Democratic power structure in Sacramento for years, no other legislator has done more to buck her own party to push union-opposed school reform legislation than Romero. She’s either sponsored or supported bills that would allow for innovative programs like L.A. Unified’s School Choice, for the parent trigger to force change at failing schools, for allowing districts to have some flexibility in how they lay off teachers, and for changes in teacher evaluations that allowed the state to compete in federal Race to the Top funding…..
So why did the LA Times, which has expressed support for nearly all of the reforms that Romero championed, endorse the very nice guy who, no matter how likable, represents the way it’s always been?
The position of SPI comes with some real power. He or she will determine what should be on the state’s standardized tests, and will decide when and how to require changes in schools that are failing to make adequate progress. These are both elements of the state’s vast education bureaucracy that could use some fresh eyes and some level-headed examination. It also features a fairly large bully pulpit, that Romero would have put to good and energetic use.
In the end, around 30,000 votes made the difference between making it into the runoff or not for Romero.
In this low-turn-out election where few were paying much attention to the down-ballot races, it is reasonable to guess that an endorsement by the state’s largest newspaper could have been a deciding factor—perhaps THE deciding factor—in how 30,000, or 40,000 or 60,000 votes got cast.
The LA Times editorial board explained in part why it chose Aceves. In essence, they said, because he’s calm, non-partisan, upbeat and experienced. Okay, fair enough.
However, given the mess this state’s schools are in, to my mind anyway, a sure hand on the tiller—while undeniably desirable—no longer seems like enough.