Help struggling students or pay teacher salaries?

Charter school advocate Marshall Tuck came very close three years ago to spoiling Tom Torlakson’s bid for a second term as the state superintendent of schools.

It was a major proxy battle in the years-long war between the state’s education establishment and education reformers over the direction of California’s 6.2 million-student K-12 school system.

Each directly raised and spent more than $2 million on the campaign, with Tuck backed by reform groups and Torlakson’s very narrow win underwritten by Democratic and union organizations.

Torlakson must vacate the office next year, but Tuck is running again, likely to face Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, D-Richmond.

In a purely political sense, a duel over a ministerial office is small potatoes. But a Tuck-Thurmond duel would be another proxy battle, and the stakes — the future of public education in California — have gotten higher.

Three years ago, Gov. Jerry Brown’s “Local Control Funding Formula” was brand new. It gives school districts with large numbers of poor and/or English-learner students extra money to close the “achievement gap” between them and their more advantaged fellow students.

About 60 percent of those 6.2 million students qualify for that extra help, so it’s no small number, and taxpayers are committing billions of dollars to it each year.

However, we’ve learned over the last three years that the education establishment doesn’t want strong oversight of how those billions are being spent or whether they are improving academic achievement.

Torlakson countermanded his own department’s initial advice and told school districts they could spend the extra money on salary increases, which pleased his union backers.

Torlakson and the state Board of Education, backed by Brown, have spurned pleas from reformers for tighter monitoring of LCFF and academic progress in general. They’ve adopted an “accountability” system that downplays academics in favor of “multiple measures.”

They say they trust local school officials to spend the money effectively under what Brown calls “subsidiarity,” but independent studies of LCFF have revealed a pattern of dissipating the extra money meant for helping high-needs students.

An exhaustive study of Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest school district, commissioned by United Way of Los Angeles and conducted by a team from UC Berkeley, demonstrated how it had diverted money away from the 80 percent of L.A. Unified students who qualified for it.

Just a month ago, Public Advocates and others sued Long Beach Unified on behalf of parents over the same issue, saying money is not being concentrated on kids needing extra attention.

And a new report from the Public Policy Institute of California finds that despite spending billions on LCFF grants, test results “are especially troubling because they indicate that disadvantaged students are falling further behind.”

That’s why next year’s race for state superintendent of education is — or at least should be — important.

Dan Walters is a political columnist for The Sacramento Bee.

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