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Tom Torlakson, California's top elected education official, may not have garnered enough votes in Tuesday's primary to fend off a general election showdown against challenger Marshall Tuck.

Because California state superintendent of public instruction is a nonpartisan position, a candidate who gets 50 percent-plus-one in the primary wins outright. Torlakson, an incumbent who has the strong support of the state's teachers unions, hovered near that threshold all night in the three-candidate contest.

But with 100 percent of precincts reporting, Torlakson had not established a decisive winning margin over Tuck, a former charter school administrator supported by business-backed education groups seeking to shake up the status quo of teacher tenure and evaluation rules. Torlakson registered 46.9 percent against 28.6 percent for Tuck as of earlier this morning, with tens of thousands of ballots still to count.

If those results hold, it could set up a costly campaign that pits teachers unions against deep-pocketed rivals in the education community. The race attracted millions of dollars in outside spending despite the state superintendent having limited policy-making authority.

PHOTO: State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, urges legislators to support the tax extension proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown. on March 14, 2011. The Sacramento Bee/Randy Pench


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