Education is taking center stage in the June election.
The race for state superintendent of public instruction has emerged as one of the most surprising contests on the ballot - thanks in part to a political novice making his first run for public office.
"Most Californians are unhappy and embarrassed where our public schools are," says candidate Marshall Tuck.
Tuck is a 40-year-old former charter school executive who has shaken up the normally staid race.
"We have over two million kids right now as we speak in public schools in 2014 that cannot read and write at grade level," he says.
Tuck travels the state with the education code in tow. It’s a 2,300-page tome he says symbolizes problems with the education system - problems he says he encountered first hand working in Los Angeles schools.
"We took over a school, Markham Middle School, where after nine months over half of our teachers received layoff notices because the education code says seniority is the only factor for layoffs in the vast majority of cases," says Tuck.
But Tuck has critics in the education establishment.
"I don’t think Marshall Tuck gets it. I don’t think he does," says Sheila Jordan, the Alameda County Superintendent of Schools. "I don’t think he has the rapport and the commitment to the total system."
Jordan is a long-time backer of Tom Torlakson, the current state superintendent. Torlakson is a teacher, former legislator and as incumbent has overseen the implementation of several landmark education laws in the last few years.
"Tom is very well suited for where we are right now," says Jordan.
The powerful teachers unions back Torlakson. They’ve independently spent more than $2.5 million dollars to indirectly support his re-election bid.
NBC Bay Area political analyst Larry Gerston says, "You look at the two of them on paper and you say, 'Wow, you know, here’s a new kid on the block. Here's a guy who's been around the block, many times.' And you know, it looks somewhat uneven."
But in a surprising development, it was the outsider Tuck and not the incumbent Torlakson who won endorsements from The San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times and Sacramento Bee.
"I think newspapers are intrigued with Tuck," says Gerson. "He walks differently, talks differently, acts differently."
There is another candidate in the mix - Republican Lydia Gutierrez. She is an elementary school teacher from Long Beach notable for her strong opposition to the new Common Core academic standards. But she has been significantly outspent in the race.
Whoever wins the the top post in California schools, he or she will face a tall order in Sacramento.
"The budget comes from the legislature. The board of education comes from the governor. And so one really needs to be wired in to both of those institutions, legislative and executive, in order to really have any prayer of getting anything done," says Gerston.
The election is Tuesday, June 3. If one of the candidates gets more than 50% of the vote, the race is over. If no one gets a majority, there will be a runoff in November.