Marshall Tuck, a former charter schools executive who is running for the California Superintendent of Public Education, responds to questions at the Sacramento Press Club in September 2014. Tuck is trying to unseat incumbent Tom Torlakson . (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Imagine a political race between two members of the same party for a state position that has very little power but attracts tens of millions of dollars in contributions — three times more than the gubernatorial contest. One of the candidates is a teacher with big union money behind him. The other is a former investment banker and charter school executive with big money from anti-union billionaires — including some who don’t even live in the state — as well as Hollywood actors making fun videos with them.

This is a description of the actual race for California’s state superintendent, in which Democratic incumbent Tom Torlakson is being challenged by Democratic challenger Marshall Tuck. Donations from both sides total some $30 million, with roughly half going to each side. If this race doesn’t show just how contentious the issue of corporate school reform has become for the Democratic Party, then nothing does.

Torlakson began his career as a high-school science teacher, track and cross country coach. He continued to teach after taking elected office, and taught at his local community college through 2012. Tuck worked as an investment banker for Salomon Brothers before becoming president of the charter school network Green Dot and later ran the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, an education nonprofit that was charged by a former city mayor with improving 17 low-performing public schools but got mixed results.

Torlakson has been the recipient of union money for years, and this race is no exception. It’s no secret that he has supported union positions in the past, and the unions want him to continue doing it. Torlakson opposed a lawsuit known as Vergara v. California in which a judge threw out the state’s teacher tenure and job protection statutes (though a court stayed his decision upon appeal).

But why are Silicon Valley, hedge fund and real estate billionaires supplying Tuck with millions of dollars to make up the other half of the donations? Why, especially, would the fabulously wealthy who don’t live in California  — including former Enron trader John Arnold, who lives in New Jersey, and Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, who lives in Arkansas, and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg — donate to Tuck? What is their agenda?

I asked both campaigns, and here’s what Tuck’s campaign manager, Cynara Lilly, said:

One out of eight kids in public schools in America attends California public schools.  There’s no denying that with California’s schools ranking 45th in the nation, what happens here can have a huge effect on how prepared the next generation is to compete in an increasingly global economy.  What’s good for kids anywhere, is good for all of us, everywhere.

(Her comment doesn’t note that California’s school rankings has been dropping like a stone as K-12 funding in the state has been plummeting in Education Week’s 2013 Quality Counts survey, the state was 49th in per-pupil spending. But never mind.)

Torlakson spokesman Paul Hefner said:

As for those supporting Tom’s opponent, they’ve made their education agenda very clear – supporting school privatization, ending pensions for public employees and treating schools like a business.

Tuck has won the endorsements of many newspapers in the state, including the Los Angeles Times whose editorial actually accused the teachers unions of being a ‘big-money special interest’ when they donate to a particular candidate but made a point of saying that billionaire businessmen and women are not when they pour money into a campaign. Actors Kristen Bell, Dax Shepherd and Nathan McHale made what they consider an amusing video supporting him.

Torlakson, on the other hand, has been endorsed by more than 100 education leaders statewide, including almost every county superintendent.

What makes all of this in some ways unfathomable is that the California state school superintendent’s job has very little power. California’s Education Department doesn’t actually run the state’s public schools and has little involvement in policymaking. The governor-appointed state Board of Education does.

Wouldn’t spending $30 million on kids be better than this?

Here is just one contribution list for Tuck showing the amounts he has received from big donors for half of October:

Donor City, state Employer/Occupation Amount Contribution Date Report Date
JONATHAN D. SACKLER SAMFORD, CT 06901 DIRECTOR/PURDUE PHARMA 20000 2014-10-17 2014-10-17
CYRUS HADIDI MANHATTAN BEACH, CA 90266 HEDGEFUND MANAGER/JMB CAPITAL 250000 2014-10-17 2014-10-17
RONALD CONWAY BELVEDERE, CA 94920 INVESTOR/SV ANGEL LLC 100000 2014-10-17 2014-10-17
ELLEN WORCH ROSENBERG MANHATTAN BEACH, CA 90266 PARENT/VOLUNTEER/N/A 1000 2014-10-17 2014-10-17
ALICE L. WALTON BENTONVILLE, AR 72712 PHILANTHROPIST/SELF EMPLOYED – ALICE L. WALTON 200000 2014-10-16 2014-10-16
ALICE L. WALTON BENTONVILLE, AR 72712 PHILANTHROPIST/SELF EMPLOYED – ALICE L. WALTON 250000 2014-10-16 2014-10-16
WILLIAM F. AUSFAHL MORAGA, CA 94556 RETIRED/N/A 5000 2014-10-15 2014-10-15
PARENTS AND TEACHERS FOR PUTTING STUDENTS FIRST SAN RAFAEL, CA 94901 50000 2014-10-14 2014-10-14
FRANK E. BAXTER LOS ANGELES, CA 90025 RETIRED/N/A 100000 2014-10-14 2014-10-14
STACY H. SCHUSTERMAN TULSA, OK 74119 EXECUTIVE/SAMSON ENERGY CO. 50000 2014-10-10 2014-10-10
CARRIE PENNER MENLO PARK, CA 94025 EDUCATION/SELF EMPLOYED – CARRIE PENNER 500000 2014-10-10 2014-10-10
SUSAN C. CHAMBERLIN RICHMOND, CA 94801 RETIRED/N/A 100000 2014-10-10 2014-10-10
JOHN SCULLY MILL VALLEY, CA 94941 MANAGING PARTNERS/SPO PARTNERS & CO. 200000 2014-10-09 2014-10-09
ARTHUR ROCK SAN FRANCISCO, CA 94111 SELF EMPLOYED/ARTHUR ROCK & CO. 250000 2014-10-09 2014-10-09
RICHARD C. LUNDQUIST EL SEGUNDO, CA 90245 OWNER/CONTINENTAL DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION 250000 2014-10-09 2014-10-09
DORIS FISHER SAN FRANCISCO, CA 94111 RETIRED/N/A 500000 2014-10-08 2014-10-08
LAURENE POWELL JOBS PALO ALTO, CA 94301 CHAIR/EMERSON COLLECTIVE, LLC 300000 2014-10-08 2014-10-08
WILLIAM E. BLOOMFIELD, JR. MANHATTAN BEACH, CA 90266 CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARD/WEB SERVICE COMPANY, INC. 750000 2014-10-07 2014-10-07
JOHN DOUGLAS ARNOLD MT. ARLINGTON, NJ 07856 INVESTOR/NONE 300000 2014-10-06 2014-10-07
TENCH COXE PALO ALTO, CA 94304 MANAGING DIRECTOR/SUTTER HILL VENTURES 50000 2014-10-06 2014-10-07
ELI BROAD LOS ANGELES, CA 90024 CHAIRMAN/PRESIDENT/CEO/SUNAMERICA, INC. 750000 2014-10-06 2014-10-07
LAURENE POWELL JOBS PALO ALTO, CA 94301 CHAIR/EMERSON COLLECTIVE, LLC 200000 2014-10-06 2014-10-07
GREAT PUBLIC SCHOOLS LOS ANGELES PAC LOS ANGELES, CA 90017 22450 2014-10-03 2014-10-03
EDVOICE INDEPENDENT EXPENDITURE COMMITTEE SACRAMENTO, CA 95814 10430 2014-10-03 2014-10-03
ELI BROAD LOS ANGELES, CA 90024 CHAIRMAN/PRESIDENT/CEO/SUNAMERICA, INC. 250000 2014-10-03 2014-10-03
WILLIAM E. BLOOMFIELD, JR. MANHATTAN BEACH, CA 90266 CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARD/WEB SERVICE COMPANY, INC. 250000 2014-10-03 2014-10-03
GREAT PUBLIC SCHOOLS LOS ANGELES PAC LOS ANGELES, CA 90017 10000 2014-10-02 2014-10-03
Donor City, state Employer/Occupation Amount Contribution Date Report Date

Correction: An earlier version said John Arnold lived in California though the donation list clearly shows he lives in New Jersey. This version is correct.)