As of 8 a.m. Wednesday, Marshall Tuck holds a slim lead of just over 1 percent, with 97 percent of precincts reporting. Tuck has 50.6 percent of the vote to Tony Thurmond's 49.4 percent, with a difference of only 76,000 votes. The outstanding precincts appear to be from San Diego County.
While Thurmond has big leads in urban centers like Los Angeles and the Bay Area, Tuck is winning rural and Republican counties.
A poll released last week put Tuck more than 10 points ahead of Thurmond, with support from 64 percent of Republicans, 35 percent of Democrats and 50 percent of independent voters.
A win for Tuck would be a major victory for education reform and charter school advocates, who helped raise some $40 million to elect him and put millions into Tuck's campaign against current state Superintendent Tom Torlakson four years ago.
Earlier this year they also backed Antonio Villaraigosa for governor, a position with far more policymaking might when it comes to education.
Governor-elect Gavin Newsom has staked out a more aggressive stance on charter schools than his predecessor, and he's got the support of the teachers union and other labor groups who opposed Tuck.
If Tuck is elected he'll have to find a way to work with Newsom. "Tuck’s going to have to learn quickly any battle with Newsom is a tricky course for a new superintendent," says lobbyist Kevin Gordon, who represents many of the state's school districts. "The governor has so much power. Power over budget, over personnel, over the sheer size of the (education) department."
Gordon anticipates Newsom will take up efforts to reform the state's charter school law and teacher tenure laws early on. That could create tension with Tuck, and perhaps more importantly, with their very different bases. "There's a big line in the sand between labor and management," Gordon says, referring to Newsom's support from labor and Tuck's support from school administrators and charter leaders.
"The governor will know that the state superintendent is not in lockstep with his own agenda on issues, or with his base." Gordon says. "There’s room for, at the very least, tension, if not outright conflict."
Still, he touts Tuck's political savvy and says he's optimistic if Tuck wins the two will find much common ground.
Tuck's narrow lead comes at the end of a heated and expensive battle that pit the state teachers union against a self-styled education reformer with pro-charter school backers.
The change in state leadership this year could mark an inflection point for education. Gov. Jerry Brown has been friendly to charter schools, and people on both sides of the issue see his departure as an opportunity to shape policy on this and more going forward.
That's likely why spending on the race for superintendent of public instruction topped $60 million, though the position is nonpartisan, and both leading candidates were Democrats.
The contest brought in more outside spending than any other election for statewide office, leading to a barrage of increasingly negative campaign ads in the lead-up to the election.
It's now the most expensive state superintendent election in U.S. history, according to an Associated Press analysis.
Tuck and his supporters raised about twice as much as Thurmond and his.
Marshall Tuck pitched himself as the guy who will shake things up. “We need real change,” he told KQED. “The status quo in our public schools is not working. California has built massive bureaucracy around public education, and it's taken the creativity and innovation out of our schools."
Tuck has a background in management. He helped found the charter network Green Dot Public Schools in Los Angeles and ran it. He later helped create and run the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a nonprofit that works to improve underserved L.A. Unified schools. He's a former banker who says he found his passion in education.
Thurmond represents parts of the East Bay in the state Assembly. He used to be a Richmond City Council member, school board member and social worker. He grew up poor and credits public education with saving his life.
While the two have very different backgrounds, they have a lot in common. Both support Gov. Jerry Brown's big education reforms. Both support universal preschool and want to see more funding for K-12 schools and better salaries and training for teachers.
But the two differ in their approach to charter schools. While Thurmond said he supports a moratorium on new charter approvals to give the state time to assess their impact, Tuck opposes the move. Tuck also advocated significant reforms to teacher tenure laws, while Thurmond took a more conservative approach to the issue.
Stanford-based education policy expert David Plank says the most significant difference between the two didn't show up in their plans for the state.
“They themselves are not very far apart," Plank says. "They have very different friends. The friends of one are the enemies of the other and vice versa, so the political contest gives the impression that the stakes are larger than they are.”
Thurmond had the support of the state's major unions, the California Democratic Party, Sen. Kamala Harris and congresswoman Barbara Lee.
Tuck had the Association of California School Administrators and California Charter School Association behind him. His biggest fundraiser, the EdVoice for the Kids PAC, got major contributions from billionaire charter advocates like Bill Bloomfield, Reed Hastings, Doris Fisher, Arthur Rock, Eli Broad and the Walton family.
The state superintendent position doesn't carry the policymaking might of legislators or the State Board of Education, nor the budget-shaping power of the governor, but as head of the Department of Education, the superintendent determines how education policies are carried out, doles out money to districts and ensures they’re following the law.
The job also gives the person who holds it a megaphone to highlight certain issues or influence policy.