The office of California’s Superintendent of Public Instruction sounds more powerful than it actually is. The superintendent can sway policy as one vote on the Board of Education, as manager of the state education bureaucracy and as occupant of a bully pulpit. The real clout, however, rests with the board president and the governor.
Nonetheless, the post has become a proxy for the fight between charter school backers and teachers’ unions. That’s too bad because the charter debate is, in some ways, passe. Privatization’s worst abuses – and scariest Betsy DeVos zealots – have already revealed public charters to be as much a compromise as any school option. Sweeping reforms by Gov. Jerry Brown have made public schools more responsive to needy kids and more locally focused. And a pending U.S. Supreme Court case over union fees is likely to weaken the California Teachers Association.
It’s against this backdrop that four contenders are vying to succeed the union-backed Superintendent Tom Torlakson, who is terming out. This is a nonpartisan post and thus an exception to the top-two primary; if a candidate wins a clear majority on June 5, there is no runoff in November.
Two candidates are exemplary, but Richmond Assemblyman Tony Thurmond gets our nod by a narrow margin. He and charter school pioneer Marshall Tuck both want more reliable school funding. Both want more transparency to ensure that money for kids doesn’t go for teacher salaries. Both are Democrats who oppose for-profit charters and vouchers. But the political landscape has shifted since Tuck nearly unseated Torlakson in 2014.
The co-founder of Los Angeles’ successful Green Dot charters, Tuck also ran a successful nonprofit reform effort in L.A.’s public schools with then-mayor and current gubernatorial candidate Antonio Villaraigosa. He has mellowed his stern critique of California’s public school teachers and broadened his support to groups such as the Association of California School Administrators. He has a son in the L.A. public schools now. And – importantly, since the superintendent runs the state Department of Education – he has managed big bureaucracies.
But Thurmond’s political and life experience feel more suited to the moment. A former social worker, he has made at-risk children his focus, first as a youth liaison on the Richmond City Council, then as a member of the West Contra Costa Unified school board and, since 2014, as a legislator.
Thurmond is, yes, union-backed. He believes the probation for teacher tenure should grow from 18 months to three years, not the five years Tuck wants, and would block most nonprofit charters, which Tuck still sees as crucial, especially in low-income areas. But Thurmond does see a role for charters in special education, and has bucked labor on issues such as a later school start time.
Importantly, though, Thurmond has walked the walk in a field too often dominated by Ivy League idealists. His history of working with kids – poor kids, disabled kids, foster kids – shows a deep commitment to the students who most need a champion. And he can not only deliver for them as a politician who has learned to count votes, he also gets them: The orphaned son of a Panamanian immigrant who died when he was 6, he was raised by relatives who insisted he attend school. “Education saved my life,” he says.
Lily Ploski, a former administrator at Solano Community College who is currently teaching financial awareness to low income and first-generation college students in an Upward Bound program at Mills College, has a compelling personal history and strong higher ed academic credentials, but isn’t in the same league as Tuck and Thurmond. Nor is Steve Ireland, who is campaigning around parents’ interests.
Tuck, whom we endorsed in 2014, shares Villaraigosa’s views on public schools; Thurmond has endorsed front-runner Gavin Newsom. Tuck has bold ideas but would likely be even more marginalized than past superintendents if Newsom wins. Thurmond would have more influence, and we trust that while his backing may be with the unions, his heart will be with California’s kids.
Note: An earlier version of this editorial erroneously characterized Marshall Tuck’s support for Antonio Villaraigosa. Though Tuck’s views on public schools are closely aligned with Villaraigosa’s, he has not formally endorsed in the gubernatorial race.