California Forum

What it would take for California’s school superintendent to truly transcend politics

The Superintendent of Public Instruction is a nonpartisan office, but that doesn’t mean politics don’t infuse the campaigns.
The Superintendent of Public Instruction is a nonpartisan office, but that doesn’t mean politics don’t infuse the campaigns. Sacramento Bee

Editor’s note: This is one in an occasional series on educational issues for the upcoming elections.

California can pretend all it wants that the Superintendent of Public Instruction is a non-partisan office. Don’t believe it for a minute.

When it comes to education, there are clearly marked parties. They both claim to have the secret to improving outcomes for low-income students of color. But when it comes to strategies for making that happen, they’re pretty much as divided as Democrats and Republicans are about everything, which is saying something these days. And with big money as part of the picture, they operate much the same as well.

School politics follows the money and the money isn’t feeling moderate these days.

Let’s call one the Charter Party because it tends to revere those publicly funded but privately managed schools. It’s also data-driven, in love with heavy-duty accountability and measuring teachers’ job performance by their students’ scores on the state’s standardized tests.

The other is the Labor Party, backed by teachers’ unions – in this state, that’s mainly the California Teachers Assn. Its allies detest charter schools, which draw funding away from school districts. They want teachers to have more autonomy and lots of seniority-based job protection. The solution to better education is, in their viewpoint, more money for public schools, more respect for teachers and more programs for children before they enter kindergarten.

You’ll find Democrats and Republicans in btonoth of these education political parties. (The Republicans aren’t so much allies of unions as they’re against the federal government involvement in education.) Barack Obama sided with the reform side in ways that were sometimes completely unfounded by any actual evidence. Jerry Brown does the same on the teachers unions’ side.

One thing that both sides have in common is, though, is funding. For a long time, the Labor Party had the lion’s share of the money; according to a 2010 report by the California Fair Political Practices Commission, the CTA was the biggest political campaign donor in the state for the first 10 years of this millennium, spending more than $200 million.

But during the past 15 years or so, the Charter Party has had multimillionaire and billionaire philanthropists lavishing money on its political candidates. (The CTA loves to complain about all that funding poured into campaigns without bothering to acknowledge that for decades, the union was the only one with big money to spend on elections. The union isn’t taking well to having political competition.)

That’s why in recent years, the major candidates for the state’s top education job have largely come down to a choice between the two parties, the two contrasting ways of viewing education. Each has its strong points; each oversimplifies the situation. In truth, if everything had been working so well in the years when teachers had greater autonomy, before charter schools and statewide testing, there wouldn’t be charter schools and statewide testing. If charter schools were the magic answer, those schools would operate on a level playing field with traditional public schools. And there still isn’t any good evidence for judging teachers by their students’ test scores.

The problem is that, in this as in everywhere else, it’s hard to find a good moderate these days. School politics follows the money and the money isn’t feeling moderate these days.

Eight years ago, California had a chance to elect a strong, sensible candidate for state schools superintendent – Larry Aceves, who had been a top-level administrator at a couple of school districts. When he spoke, he made so much sense that you’d practically weep.

He had plans for revamping teacher training, starting with the colleges where teachers are born, and for having teachers evaluated by their peers. He wanted to invest in programs to educate low-income parents on interacting with their children, starting from birth, in ways that would give them the larger vocabularies that predict success in school. But he also wanted to intervene more strongly at schools that simply weren’t improving at all.

Aceves somehow made it to the primary past the reform candidate, but lost to Tom Torlakson, who was backed by CTA and its prodigious campaign contributions. The result hasn’t been a sterling eight years for California education as the state has chipped away at any kind of real accountability for schools.

Though there are two minor candidates running, neither is anywhere near Aceves’ level. After all, why would someone like Aceves try again, when money speaks so loudly in elections that it practically shrieks?

The good news is that both of the candidates supported by a major education party talk as though they are in the moderate wing. Marshall Tuck, supported by the school reform crowd with such familiar names as Eli Broad among them, nonetheless says he’d put a sharp eye on charter schools and press to close those that aren’t performing. Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, the CTA’s candidate, says he would prohibit school districts from using the funding that’s specifically targeted for at-risk students on across-the-board teacher raises. Those aren’t the usual stances for those parties.

Both men are politically ambitious, but they both appear to care genuinely about kids who don’t have much chance of success these days. You can bet, though, despite their middle-of-the-road talk, that Thurmond would take the more skeptical view of charter schools and Tuck would push for heavier-duty accountability. If nothing else, the winner knows that he has to please the people who will fork over political expenditures to the incumbent in four years.

Both of those are good ideas, by the way. It would just be nice to see them wrapped up in one truly non-partisan candidate. Maybe one who would be willing to invest in parent-education programs for families with newborns and toddlers, and overhaul teacher training, which never did happen.

Karin Klein is a veteran California journalist and commentator who has written extensively on education. She can be contacted at Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.