The Race for CA’s Top Ed Official: A Study in Contrasts
While much of the media is focused on which party will control Congress, one of the most important races in California is for state superintendent of public instruction, the state’s top education official.
In one corner is education reformer Marshall Tuck, who lost a close race four years ago to Tom Torlakson, the current state superintendent. In the other corner is Tony Thurmond, a state legislator who is backed by the teacher unions.
Tuck has issued a comprehensive plan that makes innovative recommendations to improve the performance of the state’s public schools and its students.
For example, he wants to use and expand the data collected by the state Department of Education, find experts in the field who are producing strong results in the face of difficult challenges, and make those expert practitioners available to schools that are struggling with similar challenges. In other words, he wants to start replicating models of success around the state.
Tuck is tough when it comes to persistent underperformance by schools. His plan says, “when it becomes clear that a school or district is unable or unwilling to make the changes necessary to serve their students well, we must act to intervene more directly.”
He is especially concerned if schools are “chronically under-serving a group of students,” such as African Americans or Latinos. He would work with those who “have a proven track record of turning around underperforming schools to help translate state intervention into improved outcomes for children.”
Similar to PRI’s recommendation for greater education-spending transparency in its recent An American Education Agenda, Tuck calls for “more transparency to how schools and school districts spend their money to build the public’s confidence and trust.” He proposes that school districts “post accessible financial information online in a consistent, user-friendly format, and report how new dollars are translating into results for kids.”
Further, he wants reporting that “demonstrates which dollars are ending up in the classroom, and which are funding the bureaucracy.” This type of reporting can “identify which districts are most effective about maximizing dollars to the classrooms.” In other words, who is getting bang for our taxpayer buck.
“The state,” says Tuck, “can support schools in the effort to drive as many dollars to the classroom as possible by providing schools with greater flexibility from the California Education Code.” He points out that state regulations push schools to use money for regulatory compliance rather than funding classrooms and kids.
Tuck is also a strong proponent of charter schools, “especially in areas where there have been few or no high quality public school alternatives.” Charter schools “can give our highest-need families an additional public school opportunity.”
Unfortunately, despite California polling data that shows strong support for school-choice vouchers, especially among African Americans and Latinos, Tuck says, “our state should continue to forbid private school vouchers.”
In very partisan contrast, Tony Thurmond says, “fighting for education starts with opposing President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ agenda.” He defends a $1.2 billion federal before- and after-school program, which has failed to produce results and which the Trump administration seeks to terminate.
Further, Thurmond says that, to improve school safety, he will, “resist efforts by the Trump Administration to bring guns into our schools,” which is a dig at the president’s call to arm teachers in dangerous public schools.
Thurmond, like Tuck, opposes school-choice vouchers, but uses the teacher unions’ rhetoric: “Leading the fight against Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos’s efforts to privatize our public education system.” That is a bizarre charge since neither the president nor his education secretary seeks to turn the public schools into private entities.
Thurmond supports greater transparency in education spending, but does not say anything in his plan about reducing state regulations so that school districts can focus their spending on the classroom.
While he does not call for the elimination of charter schools, Thurmond’s attitude is less than friendly, eschewing any indication that charter schools serve the individual needs of students, especially those in failing regular public schools.
As a legislator, Thurmond has authored a number of bills on education, some of which have become law, such as legislation to give high school students greater voice on local school boards and legislation creating a chronic-absenteeism grant program.
There are many other issues that both candidates address, but, overall, their candidacies are a study in contrasts, some stark and some more nuanced. The bottom line is that education in California will likely go in discernibly different directions depending on which man is elected as the next state superintendent.
Lance Izumi is the Koret Senior Fellow in Education and the Senior Director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute.