California Forum

California’s schools superintendent isn’t very powerful. So why are groups throwing big money into the race?

A two-year battle in California to set middle and high school start times at 8:30 a.m. or later was finally put to bed in the Legislature when the measure squeaked through on August 31, 2018.(Dreamstime/TNS)
A two-year battle in California to set middle and high school start times at 8:30 a.m. or later was finally put to bed in the Legislature when the measure squeaked through on August 31, 2018.(Dreamstime/TNS) TNS

It’s always a little hard to vote for the next state superintendent of public instruction. Not because the candidates are bad or indistinguishable, but because it’s not quite clear why the position exists in the first place.

This isn’t exactly a power position, except for some ability to interpret education law. The most important example of that in recent years was when current Superintendent Tom Torlakson gave districts the go-ahead to spend money intended for poor and non-English-speaking students on raises for teachers. The reasoning was that if a district was going to lose many of its best teachers for lack of a raise, it makes sense to take steps to hold on to them. Loss of good teachers usually harms low-income students of color the most. But this felt more like giving schools carte blanche to ignore some ferocious needs for extra programs, counselors, librarians and the like.

Both the current candidates said they would overturn that opinion. Good idea.

But aside from such rare decisions, authority over California’s schools is almost completely held by the governor, the Legislature and the State Board of Education, whose members are appointed by the governor. The state board does most of the regulation-setting and adopts the textbooks, sets the accountability parameters and considers charter school applications on appeal. In addition, local school boards have been more empowered under the Brown administration to make various decisions, especially about how they spend money.

The superintendent is more of an administrator, holder of a bully pulpit and, if adroit politically, able to find allies in the Legislature to carry and push bills – which then need the approval of the governor. In other words, most school policy flows from the governor’s office, and it would make a lot more sense for the superintendent to be appointed rather than elected, just as the board of education is. Yet, the elected position is required under the state constitution.

At least Gov. Jerry Brown made things somewhat saner by eliminating the post of Education Secretary, a redundant position that traditionally reported to the governor as a schools adviser. The job was so underwhelming that it made the superintendent look all-powerful. Let’s hope the new governor follows Brown’s lead.

Despite all this, two heavily moneyed political forces are battling it out over the superintendent’s race as though it were the sole determinant of the future of California schools. This kind of spending has become more common in recent elections. It used to be that the only real spending was by the California Teachers Association. But super-wealthy business people who want to see major changes in the way schools are run – and who want to support the growth of charter schools – have shown that they can outspend labor.

They’re backing Marshall Tuck, who came close to beating out Torlakson four years ago. Labor is backing Assemblyman Tony Thurmond. Independent expenditure fund-raising for Tuck has more than doubled that for Thurmond, but neither side is exactly gasping for money. Altogether, the race will end up costing more than $20 million.

Why are they spending so much on a position that’s unlikely to make any historic difference to the schools? Partly because they don’t have much of a governor’s race to lavish it on.

Before the June primary, money from reform-oriented donors went to like-minded gubernatorial candidate Antonio Villaraigosa and union money toward Gavin Newsom, both of them Democrats. Both sides correctly identified the governor’s office as the place where California education policy is made, not the superintendent’s office. With Villaraigosa out of the race, Newsom has a clear lead – though a narrowing one, according to a recent poll. And even though Republican candidate John Cox favors charter school expansion, reform-minded donors do not tend to be voucher proponents, as Cox is. Cox also is generally anti-spending; reform advocates generally want to see funding for schools, but argue, justifiably enough, with how the current money is spent.

In the superintendent’s race, Tuck and Thurmond actually have a lot in common. Both are qualified candidates with background in education, though Tuck’s school background comes more from reform organizations and Thurmond’s from the public schools. Both recognize that charter schools are harming the finances of some public school districts in ways that aren’t good for kids, though they have two different solutions, both of which are problematic.

And neither candidate is completely aligned with his supporters. Tuck shows more interest in ensuring that charter schools are toeing the mark than he did in his earlier days. Thurmond favored a bill mandating a later start to the school day for middle and high schools, though the CTA opposed it.

Brown vetoed that bill, on the grounds that school districts have different needs when it comes to scheduling, and that the decision should be made locally. Which brings us back to the original point: By all means, see which state superintendent candidate falls in line with your philosophies.

But if you really want to make a difference in schools, check out your local school board candidates carefully before casting ballots in that race, and vote for the governor of your choice.

Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.