Marshall Tuck (left), a former charter schools executive, is running against Assemblyman Tony Thurmond to be California's superintendent of public instruction . (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

One of the loudest and most expensive state races in the country is between two Democrats vying to win the nonpartisan position of superintendent of public instruction in California. More money is being spent on the race — for a position that has no independent policymaking power — than in most U.S. Senate campaigns.

The fight — the costliest in the state’s history for this post, with more than $43 million in campaign contributions, according to EdSource — is between state legislator Tony Thurmond and Marshall Tuck, a former charter school network president.

Thurmond, who was elected to the California State Assembly in 2014 from the East Bay, has been a teacher, social worker, city councilman and school board member. Tuck is a former banker who became the first president of the Green Dot network of charter schools in Los Angeles. After that, he founded a nonprofit that used privately donated money from the wealthy to help turn around troubled traditional public schools. Four years ago, he ran unsuccessfully for state superintendent in a race that cost some $30 million (with a lot of it coming from billionaires backing Tuck).

The state superintendent cannot independently make education policy, which is done by the California State Board of Education, which does make policy. The superintendent runs the state Department of Education and has a bully pulpit.

The fight between Thurmond and Tuck is the latest chapter in a long-running debate about public education in a state with a scandal-ridden charter school sector and severely underfunded traditional school districts. California has more charter schools — which are publicly funded but privately operated — and more charter students than any state.

Should Tuck win, supporters of charter schools will take heart. If Thurmond triumphs, supporters of traditional public education will.

Tuck has raised far more than Thurmond, about $5 million in direct contributions, compared with $3.1 million for Thurmond, according to the Associated Press. Most of the money in the race has gone through political committees that can accept unlimited amounts of money but are not allowed to coordinate with the campaigns. In this arena, Tuck is far ahead, with two committees backing him taking in $24.1 million, according to Ed Source, with a committee supporting Thurmond’s bid taking in $11.5 million so far.

Much of Tuck’s contributions have come from billionaires who support charter schools and many who live out of state. Wealthy donors include Michael Bloomberg of New York; Eli Broad of Los Angeles; and Alice Walton of Texas, who has donated millions of dollars to his campaigns over a period of years. Netflix chief Reed Hastings and Gap founder Doris Fisher have also donated. And, not surprisingly, he is backed by the California Charter Schools Association (which celebrated the controversial 2017 confirmation of Betsy DeVos as U.S. education secretary).

The involvement of out-of-state billionaires in local education races is not new; for years, some of America’s wealthiest citizens have funded local, state and federal candidates — even in states in which they do not live — to push their view of how public schools should operate. It has happened in Louisiana, California, Minnesota, Arkansas, Washington, Colorado. These billionaires have helped drive the public education agenda, and they have sparked a national debate about whether unelected private individuals should be allowed to use their fortunes to take over basic responsibilities of government and effectively set public policy.

Most of Thurmond’s contributions have come from labor unions. He was also endorsed by California’s five 2018 Teachers of the Year and by California newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and Sacramento Bee.

The Los Angeles Times’s editorial board said that while Tuck would “bring a new sense of energy and purpose to the position" and would not kowtow to charter schools, Thurmond is the stronger candidate. It said Thurmond should not be “stereotyped as someone who will blindly support unions over all else” and who “has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to at-risk students and a deep understanding of the obstacles they face.”

Both men are registered Democrats, but Tuck has the support of many Republicans. With the state Democratic Party supporting Thurmond, Tuck was booed off the stage at the California Democratic Party convention earlier this year.

The candidates do agree on some key issues — including increased funding for public schools and expanding prekindergarten — but not all, and the biggest point of contention is charter schools.

It is estimated there are 1,275 charter schools that enroll about 630,000 students. Nearly 35 charter schools with some 25,000 students are run by five for-profit companies. California has been called the Wild West when it comes to charters because of repeated financial and other scandals. Charter schools are not required to follow all of the rules that govern traditional public schools. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) recently signed a bill into law that supposedly bans for-profit charters in the state, but it is not clear it will really do that.

Thurmond wants to stop the expansion of charters until funding and transparency issues are resolved. Tuck does not want to stop expansion, though both candidates agree poor-performing charters should be shut and for-profits should be banned. EdSource spells out other differences:

On one issue expected to go before the Legislature next year, Tuck opposes letting districts reject a charter school it decides could have a negative financial impact on a district. Thurmond reframes the question in a way that charter defenders find problematic at best: He would condition opening a new charter school on compensating a district for the financial loss of revenue.

State superintendents have little direct authority over charter schools, but their opinion could help influence the debate.

Tuck also has fought the California Teachers Association on workplace laws. As CEO of the semi-autonomous Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, he helped instigate a lawsuit in 2010 that challenged teacher layoffs in Los Angeles Unified based on seniority, which led to massive layoffs in several Partnership schools. Tuck argues seniority should be one factor, not the sole factor, in teacher layoffs. The CTA defends the current state law.

In the final stretch of the campaign, the tone has become sharper and even nasty, with both sides complaining about attack ads from their opponents. EdSource reported:

The dispute over negative ads has escalated, with the Thurmond campaign seeking to have an independent committee take off the air an ad that falsely claims Thurmond was reprimanded by the Obama administration.

According to OpenSecrets.com, the Tuck-Thurmond race is more expensive than most current U.S. Senate races. Whoever wins faces tough issues. In the 2018 Quality Counts annual survey conducted by Education Week, California did not do well:

This year, California finishes 32nd among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, with an overall score of 72.6 out of 100 points and a grade of C. The nation as a whole posts a grade of C.

Diving into the findings for the three graded indices, California earns a C in the Chance-for-Success category and ranks 38th. The average state earns a C-plus. In School Finance, California receives a C-minus and ranks 32nd. For the K-12 Achievement Index, it finishes 22nd with a grade of C-minus. The average state earns grades of C in School Finance and K-12 Achievement. 

(Correction: The state superintendent does not head the state Board of Education, as an earlier version said.)