Big showing by little-known Larry Aceves

The Association of California School Administrators had to convince Larry Aceves, a retired superintendent from a small district in San Jose, to run for state superintendent as a long-shot candidate.

The bet on Aceves ­– ACSA’s first big foray into the campaign for superintendent of public instruction – is looking pretty smart today. Even with only 18.8 percent of the vote total in a 12-candidate race, Aceves was the top vote-getter Tuesday and, with Democratic Assemblyman Tom Torlakson, will be in the runoff election in November.

Aceves’ unexpected showing means there won’t be a knock-down, head-to-head, polarizing battle between surrogates for California Teachers Association, which spent amply on behalf of Torlakson, and the pro-charter school advocacy group  EdVoice, which threw its wealthy funders’ money behind Sen. Gloria Romero. While only 1.6 percentage points separated her and Aceves, she’s out of the running in third, with 17.2 percent, 0.8 percent behind Torlakson, though hundreds of thousands of ballots statewide have yet to be counted (see here for statewide and county totals).

Aceves won, despite coming in third in his own backyard, Santa Clara County. And Romero lost despite winning in Los Angeles, the biggest county and her hometown.

But quirky things can happen in an anti-incumbent year, with a low voter turnout of 25 percent – and even lower in vote-heavy Los Angeles (19.6 percent turnout, second lowest among counties). Unlike Torlakson and Romero, Aceves wasn’t tarred as a Sacramento politician. Only he could identify himself as a retired superintendent and the voice of a career educator.  Only he could say he actually has run something larger than a legislative office. While the superintendent of public instruction is the voice of K-12 education, with a big bully pulpit, that person is also the executive of large state department.

By one poll, 60 percent of voters were undecided heading into the final weeks. Aceves saved up money for smart radio ads in the last week, and he had the editorial endorsements of Torlakson’s hometown paper, the Contra Costa Tmes, and the Los  Angeles Times on Romero’s turf. (Does familiarity breed contempt? None of the three got their local paper’s editorial support.)

Given the clout of the CTA and its ability in the past to pick and choose the superintendent, Aceves goes into the runoff as the underdog. ACSA spent $450,00 to push his candidacy so far, but its pockets are only so deep. He remains an unknown.

But having spent $1.2 million pushing Torlakson’s candidacy already ­– with not very impressive results – CTA must decide how to shepherd its money. Aceves had decent relations with teachers as superintendent of the Franklin-McKinley School District, and he is presenting himself as someone who can bridge differences. The union must be more worried about Republican Meg Whitman as governor and the amount of money she’ll throw against Democrat Jerry Brown.

The big loser in the primary was EdVoice, which has had a lot of influence behind the scenes in the Schwarzenegger administration and whose funders include Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and Los Angeles  philanthropist Eli Broad. EdVoice took a risk in independently spending nearly $1.5 million for Romero.

Romero has become a staunch charter advocate and proponent of President Obama’s Race to the Top competition. She favors performance-based pay for teachers and pushed through a controversial parent trigger mechanism, giving parents of low-performing schools the right to request a charter conversion or other options, such as the replacement of the principal and half of the staff. (The parent trigger hasn’t been tried yet.) Torlakson opposed these and other reforms she sponsored. Aceves’ opposition has been more measured.

On Wednesday, Romero was hardly in the mood for wishing  Aceves and Torlakson well.  “The victors in the race for superintendent of public instruction were two different wings of the same status-quo education establishment,” she said in a statement on her webiste. “The interests of the reform community, on behalf of parents and kids, lost.”

One question moving forward is whether EdVoice will be more conciliatory – and open its wallet to the candidate who at least agrees not to attack EdVoice’s reform agenda, if not openly embrace pieces of it.

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (www.TOPed.org), one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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