For months it was hard to tell apart two of the Democrats vying to be the state schools superintendent.
Tom Torlakson and Larry Aceves largely agreed on cutting-edge issues, espousing classically liberal positions, very much in sync with most of the education establishment.
But after the two emerged from a nonpartisan primary in June, Aceves, 66, has carved a different path. The retired school district superintendent changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Independent and began to focus on flaws in teacher evaluations, limiting teacher tenure protections and the difficulty of firing ineffective instructors.
Assemblyman Torlakson (D-Antioch) has, by contrast, stuck to his original message — mostly one of uniting often fractious forces behind an effort to increase funding for the state's schools. He has been endorsed by the California Teachers Assn., which is mounting a substantial independent campaign on his behalf.
The two are vying to succeed Jack O'Connell, who is barred from running again after his second four-year term. Torlakson, 61, also faces term limits in the Assembly.
State education policy is set broadly by the governor-appointed Board of Education. The superintendent of public instruction translates that policy into practice while running the Department of Education. That department develops, runs and interprets the state testing system and manages state support for struggling schools. The position, with an annual salary of $151,127, also carries a bully pulpit and enough resources to boost or oppose initiatives of the governor or Legislature.
Aceves recently called for curtailing the power of teachers unions and making it easier to fire poorly performing teachers, which, he said, takes at least two years and $100,000.
"The law and how the dismissal process is structured needs to be changed at the state level," Aceves said in an interview. "There are 200 teachers in Los Angeles drawing full pay because the district can't figure how to fire them. The Legislature has let the scope of negotiations go too far."
Aceves also criticized traditional seniority protections that result in a "last-hired, first-fired" policy when teachers must be laid off. The unions, he said, need "to be at the table talking or things are going to happen without their approval."
Aceves scored the biggest upset in statewide races to finish just ahead of Torlakson in the primary. In the process, they knocked out state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), shortcircuiting an anticipated showdown between the teachers union-backed Torlakson and Romero, who was funded by union critics and charter-school advocates.
Aceves has been bolstered by support from the Assn. of California School Administrators, which he once headed. The association reported spending nearly $1.4 million for Aceves through mid-October. Torlakson's own campaign account reported close to $1 million and unions, mostly CTA, have spent well over $3 million independently on his behalf.
Aceves has shifted his views on teacher-related matters, echoing some stands once championed by Romero. A Romero backer, Netflix founder Reed Hastings, has been won over: he gave $400,000 last week to the independent campaign for Aceves.
Early this year, Aceves had insisted that firing a teacher was not too difficult.
"It's not easy, and it shouldn't be easy, but there are ways to do that" if officials simply follow the prescribed rules, he said at a February campaign forum in Los Angeles.
Torlakson wants to see better support and training for using the existing rules, but judged that matter less important than recruiting and retaining qualified teachers.
Nor is Torlakson interested in making teachers work longer to earn job protections. "Two years for tenure is the right length of time for right now," Torlakson said in an interview. "This is not the issue that's going to improve our schools," although better teacher preparation and evaluation before tenure would help, he added.
All along, Aceves has said he would consider supporting a longer tenure process.
Job one for Torlakson is increasing education funding. Changes to teacher evaluations and seniority should either be worked out locally or at the state level with all parties. Layoffs "wouldn't be an issue if not for the thousands of pink slips going out," he said.
Torlakson said he wanted to help provide the support needed to make traditional "neighborhood" schools successful. Regarding independently run charters, most of which are non-union, he calls for greater "accountability." He favors, for example, requiring board members of charter schools to comply with the same financial disclosure requirements as elected board of education members.
Aceves said he doesn't oppose charter schools in principle but shares similar concerns as Torlakson and charter critics.
Overall, the candidates still agree on many issues and each touts his background as best suited to the job.
Torlakson, a former fulltime teacher and athletic coach, makes a case for his political skills, honed through 14 years in the state Legislature. Aceves, by contrast, claims nonpolitical administrative credentials. A career educator, he worked his way up from teaching to serving a combined 15 years as superintendent in two small, San Jose-area school systems.