During the pandemic, public education has become a highly contentious arena for vitriol around masking, vaccines and reopening of schools. But those tensions did not result in a heated election for the leader of California’s top schools.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond bred more than 10 times as much money as all of his other competitors combined, and he’s won the endorsement of powerful teachers’ unions and interest groups, making him likely to slip easily into a second four-year term. Because this is a nonpartisan contest, unlike other state offices in Tuesday’s primary, if he or anyone else wins a majority of votes, he is immediately elected, without second round in November.
Thurmond’s smooth ride is despite reports of a toxic management style, questionable hiring practices and a general lack of leadership to help schools through the pandemic.
But Thurmond, a former state assemblyman and social worker, says he remains true to his accomplishments.
“The reason I want this job is because I see what schools need and I want to see them bounce back,” he said in an interview with CalMatters this week. “I know how to move systems around to help them get what they need.”
Many educators, lawmakers and experts who worked with Thurmond during his first term say much of his work takes place behind the scenes. Since taking office in early 2019, Thurmond has launched various task forces and task forces of education experts that have generated sets of recommendations for legislation.
Shelley Spiegel-Coleman, strategic adviser for Californians Together, an advocacy organization for English learners, said Thurmond helped protect funding for teacher professional development.
“He listens to multiple voices, and I don’t think people give him enough credit for that,” Spiegel-Coleman said. “Everyone tells you what to do, and they listen and do their best.”
The job description
The responsibilities of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction are twofold. First, it’s overseeing the California Department of Education and its 1,500 employees. The agency largely helps local schools and districts implement policies set by Sacramento legislators.
“You can pass a policy, but it doesn’t matter if you can’t implement it,” said Michael Kirst, former chairman of the California state board of education. “The California Department of Education, in my view, is an administrative body that enforces the policy.”
Second, the state superintendent uses the office’s bullying pulpit to draw attention to key education issues, including literacy, the achievement gap, or racial discrimination in schools. The superintendent can then influence bills in the legislature or the state budget.
Kirst — who served on the state school board from 1975 to 1982 and then from 2011 to 2019 when Jerry Brown was governor — said it was crucial the governor and superintendent were in agreement. He said tension between the two offices has stalled education policy.
“I saw this movie, and it’s not pretty,” he said. “You don’t see the denunciations of [Gov. Gavin] Newsom by Tony Thurmond, and Newsom sees Thurmond as another respected elected official.
The bureau allows no direct control over California’s public schools, which largely operate under “local control.” While parents have called on Thurmond to reopen schools during the pandemic, he said he was unable to do so at the “push of a button”.
Despite these limited powers, the contest for state superintendent has not always been so lukewarm. In 2018, Thurmond and his opponent Marshall Tuck spent a total of $50 million on their campaigns. Tuck finished first in the June primary of that year, but narrowly lost to Thurmond in the November general election.
Tuck ran on a pro-charter school platform, which turned the election into a proxy war between teachers’ unions and advocates for greater school choice. But political insiders say the money spent on this election was far from commensurate with the powers of the office.
“A lot of the fights around charters are centered around changes to the law,” said Barrett Snider, school district lobbyist at Capitol Advisors. “It’s not something the state superintendent can do alone.”
While lawmakers tightened regulations on charter schools during Thurmond’s first term, Snider and Kirst say the landscape wouldn’t have been much different if Tuck had won in 2018, largely because lawmakers and Newsom led the charge. Snider and Kirst say the battle over charter schools has died down since the last election because the fallout from the pandemic has shifted the debate over school choice.
None of Thurmond’s challengers this year have raised nearly as much money as Tuck, but several contenders including Lance Christensen, a Sacramento-area education policy official, and George Yang, a Bay Area software architect, are calling for an easing of restrictions on charter schools.
“I’m a big advocate for charter schools, but they’re basically in a defensive posture right now,” Christensen told CalMatters. “Charter schools are doing what they can to hold their own.”
The superintendent’s race is the only way for voters to push for more school choice this election year. A proposed ballot initiative that would have created savings accounts that parents could spend on private school tuition or tutoring failed to collect enough signatures.
Thurmond Working Groups
During his first term, Thurmond created eight task forces. These teams of experts and educators met to discuss ways to close the gap in achievement, literacy and access to technology.
Several experts who contributed to these working groups said they were skeptical of these indirect means of influencing policy.
“People naturally wonder, is this going to be a good use of my time? Will it lead to something new or better? said Joe Johnson, a professor at San Diego State University who participated in the Black Student Success Task Force. But he and most of the other experts came away from their experiments with optimism.
“He told me it would generate a set of ideas that would help him generate policy,” said Tyrone Howard, a UCLA professor who also served on the Black Student Success Task Force. “I rarely hear people trying to connect to direct legislation.”
Thurmond said the findings of these task forces have informed bills related to diversifying the teaching workforce and expanding summer literacy programs. He said he “stayed up all night” writing a bill, Senate Bill 1229, which would provide more mental health professionals in schools. The bill was passed in the Senate at the end of May and is in the Assembly.
“I absorbed some ideas that came out of the task force, but I wrote the legislation,” he said. “The task force members never said, ‘Hey, write a bill.’ They said we need culturally competent mental health clinicians.
The Digital Divide Task Force, launched in April 2020 to address the challenges of virtual education during the pandemic, has raised over $30 million and distributed over 100,000 computers and hotspots.
Last year, the state budget finally included $5 billion for technology, which was more than enough to cover the approximately $500 million cost of bridging the digital divide estimated by the research group. Thurmond’s work. The superintendent said work on the task force is on hold at this time, but plans to resume at some point to think beyond student access to computer hardware to more technical knowledge and computer education.
“The task force was born out of necessity,” he said. “I think we’re done for now, but I think we’ll have more work to do.”
Despite this behind-the-scenes work, Thurmond is no stranger to controversy and criticism. In September, Reported Policy that former employees have alleged that Thurmond created a “toxic” workplace through an abusive management style. According to the report, nearly two dozen senior officials had left the agency since Thurmond took office.
Another one Political report discovered that he had hired an assistant superintendent to oversee equity who lived in Philadelphia while working for the California Department of Education. Daniel Lee resigned days after the report was published. Thurmond said his team received “bad advice” about who he could hire, but he praised Lee’s work for the department.
“But look, they helped make things better for us. They helped us develop diversity training,” he said.
Thurmond also played a supporting role with Newsom and the California Department of Public Health in helping schools through the pandemic. He was absent from a press conference in 2021 where Newsom and other lawmakers announced the plan to reopen public schools.
Christensen, who is challenging Thurmond, said he allegedly told school districts they would only get state funding if they reopened classrooms.
“To say he played a supporting role is very generous,” he said of Thurmond. “It was a draw.”
Thurmond said his absence from the spotlight was overblown.
“The only evidence anyone has ever given is that I didn’t attend a press conference,” Thurmond said. “I visited 60 school districts and brought resources to help schools weather the pandemic.”
Pedro Noguera, the dean of USC Rossier School of Education who participated in Thurmond’s Black Student Success Task Force, said the superintendent could have done more to support local school boards.
“We’ve had this whole controversy about vaccines, about mask mandates, about reopening schools,” he said. “I don’t see the California Department of Education doing anything to protect school boards.”
Although the state superintendent may not have direct control over schools and education policy, Thurmond said he wanted to keep the position to complete the task of helping students recover from the pandemic.
“As a legislator, you are really just one vote,” he said. “As a superintendent, even if it’s not a direct route to advancing policy, you have a lot of routes to be creative.”
Cal Matters is a public interest journalism company committed to explaining how the California State Capitol works and why it matters.