Incumbent Tom Torlakson jumped to an early lead Tuesday in what was expected to be a tight race for the job of California's K-12 schools chief, a nonpartisan and largely ministerial post that in the months leading up to Election Day became an expensive battle ground for teachers unions and education reformers.
With more than 2 million votes counted and millions more yet to be tallied, early returns showed Torlakson leading challenger Marshall Tuck 54 percent to 46 percent.
The contest between the two Democrats has been one of the most hotly contested in California this year. Spending in the race has exceeded $22 million, making it the most expensive election for a statewide office apart from the governor's race.
Torlakson, 65, is a former high school science teacher and state lawmaker who was elected superintendent of public instruction four years ago. He has the backing of the unions, the California Democratic Party and the majority of county school superintendents.
Tuck is a former charter schools executive and first-time candidate who built his campaign around reforming the state's generous tenure laws and other job protections for teachers. His upstart campaign benefited from at least $10.7 million in independent expenditures by the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other business and technology leaders.
He also secured endorsements from all of the state's major newspapers.
The outcome is being watched outside California as a referendum on the state's underachieving education system and on the powerful role organized labor has played in the Democratic Party.
Torlakson has argued that the state needs steady and experienced leadership as schools rebound from deep budget cuts during the recession and begin to implement curriculum and testing changes associated with new standards.
Tuck, who supports tying students' standardized test scores to teacher evaluations and merit pay, accused Torlakson of being tied to a failed status quo that prioritized the wishes of the unions over the needs of California's 6 million public school students.