Voter GuideSuperintendent of Public Instruction
English

Posting

Superintendent of Public Instruction

The State of California is seeking a chief of schools to oversee a public education system serving more than 6 million K-12 students. 

Qualifications:

  • Managerial know-how needed to oversee the more than 2,700 employees in the California Department of Education
  • Deep knowledge of education policy and finance, as well as the needs of diverse student groups
  • Experience managing task forces and grant programs targeting priorities such as Black student achievement and student mental health
  • Progressive-leaning applicants should push for more school funding, especially for schools in lower-income communities, and cultivate alliances with teacher and staff unions. Conservative-leaning applicants should advocate for school choice and support charter schools.

Compensation

$189,841 a year

About the hiring process:

Unlike other statewide offices, this is a nonpartisan race and a candidate can win the election in June by winning a majority of the votes. Incumbent Tony Thurmond fell just short, with 46% in the primary.  

The 2018 election became one of the state’s most hotly contested races, with union-backed Thurmond narrowly defeating school choice advocate Marshall Tuck. The two candidates spent an estimated $60 million combined.

Since the start of the pandemic, however, Thurmond and the California Department of Education have mostly taken a back seat in key decision-making on school reopenings and safety protocols, deferring to Gov. Gavin Newsom and the California Department of Public Health. In late 2021, Thurmond was thrust into the spotlight as reports from Politico described mismanagement and former staff accused him of cultivating a toxic work environment that led to high turnover. One of his top deputies resigned after the agency confirmed he was living in Philadelphia. 

Thurmond, however, has endorsements from the California Democratic Party, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the California Teachers Association

Thurmond is running against Lance Christensen, an education policy expert who made his way to the general election with 12% of the vote in the June primary, narrowly beating out two others. Christensen is currently the vice president of education policy and governmental affairs at the Education Policy Center. His platform includes slimming down the California Department of Education’s bureaucracy and increasing school choice.

CalMatters is nonpartisan and nonprofit.

We are dedicated to keeping Californians informed on critical state news. We can’t do that without support from people like you.

Loading candidate quiz…

Here’s where Lance Christensen and Tony Thurmond, applicants for superintendent of public instruction, stand on the big questions about California education.

Key Topics
Where Candidates Stand on the Issues
The job
COVID impact
Money
Students
Teachers

The state superintendent of public instruction oversees a public education system serving more than 6 million K-12 students.

What are your two top priorities in the post?
Expand All
Collapse All
R
Lance Christensen

Restoring academic success and preparing kids for the 21st work century are my top priorities. To accommodate that, my first hire would be a Chief Parent Advocate as my deputy superintendent. Parents must have a seat at the table. I would also confirm that our current statutory and fiscal approach is aligned with the state constitution and local preferences as they apply to school site budgets, curricula, and discipline. We need to fund students, not systems.

D
Tony Thurmond

My top priorities are recruiting and retaining 15,000 teachers and 10,000 new mental health counselors to address staffing shortages in schools and to make sure students have the help they need to recover from learning gaps they have experienced because of COVID-19, and providing preschool education to all four-year-olds while ensuring access to universal school meals, so no child in our public schools goes hungry.

How would you work with the governor and Legislature?
Expand All
Collapse All
R
Lance Christensen

I will work with the governor and any legislator who advocates for parents and students as their top priority. I would also like to move as much decision-making authority from Sacramento to the local school districts to empower trustees and superintendents to make the best decisions for families and students in their community.

D
Tony Thurmond

I’m proud as superintendent to have worked closely with the governor and state Legislature to secure billions of dollars in funding for our schools, including record funding this fiscal year for education programs, mental health services, community schools, literacy programs, universal school meals, and programs focused on improving all student outcomes in the wake of the pandemic. I will continue to work collaboratively and closely with the governor and Legislature to fully invest in our schools, and create policies and directives that close the achievement gap and support our students and families.

How would you collaborate with local school officials?
Expand All
Collapse All
R
Lance Christensen

I will prioritize transparency and local control. It’s time to eliminate Sacramento’s bureaucratic bloat. Soon after taking office, I will invite every district and county trustee and superintendent in the state to Sacramento for a public forum to discuss our respective constitutional and statutory authorities and collaborate on the need for adjustments, realignment, or reforms.

D
Tony Thurmond

I’ve taken a strong collaborative approach with local school officials, especially through COVID-19. When the pandemic hit, I convened weekly meetings with county superintendents, local health officials and other school officials, and worked with the constantly to identify needs and provide the guidance and resources they needed. California is the most diverse state in the country and we have some of the largest public school systems. Our state superintendent needs to have a close relationship with local school officials and open channels of collaboration. I have been that collaborative leader and will continue to be so.

How would you address declining enrollment? What adjustments do you support in funding based on attendance?

How would you address declining enrollment? What adjustments do you support in funding based on attendance?
Expand All
Collapse All
R
Lance Christensen

Parents have been leaving California schools for years, but the pandemic revealed how rapidly public education has declined. The only way to fix it is to restore trust in the system. Parents need to feel like each of their kids is uniquely valued and provided the right kind of resources and programs to have academic success. Students cannot continue to be treated as economic units placed on a conveyor belt.

D
Tony Thurmond

Public school enrollment is declining across the country and California is no exception. We have to recognize that parents are upset and we need to take action, so they have reason to continue investing in our schools. That’s why I launched a task force this year to study enrollment decline and offer recommendations and assistance to districts to offset the challenges it poses. I’ve sponsored legislation to provide innovative policy solutions to help address declining enrollment, including Assembly Bill 1614, to increase funding schools receive through the Local Control Funding Formula, and SB 952, to provide funding for more dual-language immersion schools.

Do you support statewide masking rules? Or should local school districts decide?
Expand All
Collapse All
R
Lance Christensen

I do not support mask mandates in schools. The decision should be left up to parents. Should parents feel like their child needs to wear a mask, or if the student feels so inclined, then that is their choice and they should be afforded the opportunity to do so.

D
Tony Thurmond

Our statewide masking rules early in the pandemic were guided by state health officials and were critical in ensuring the safety of our teachers and students. Our COVID situation has since changed and I believe school districts should adopt masking rules based on the latest health guidance from their local health officers.

Should public or private charter schools play a bigger role?
Expand All
Collapse All
R
Lance Christensen

I believe in the right of a parent to choose any forum to educate their kids, public, public charter, private or homeschool. As a father of five kids, all of whom have spent every year of their academic career in public schools — district and charter — we value choice in education. Private schools and private home schools are legitimate options for parents who desire different things for their children.

D
Tony Thurmond

As superintendent, I have worked closely with traditional and charter public schools to ensure that all of our students receive a top-quality education and the resources they need to succeed. I’m committed to continuing that work to support our students and their families.

There’s an increasing debate whether the state’s extra investment in schools with poorer students is paying off. School districts are under fire for not disclosing more about their spending, including how they used COVID relief money

Is the state’s formula for channeling more money to schools with more low-income students working? If not, how to fix it?
Expand All
Collapse All
R
Lance Christensen

California ranks near the bottom of nearly every academic metric when compared with the other 49 states despite spending more than $20,000 per kid. There are no serious studies that demonstrate measures to direct more money to economically disadvantaged neighborhoods are actually improving academic outcomes. California’s education funding system is failing a whole generation of students. The complexity of Proposition 98 and the Local Control Funding Formula is too complicated and hasn’t accomplished the goals of empowering local district budgeting. The state needs to consider broader reforms to allow more resources and money to follow the students.

D
Tony Thurmond

I have worked to provide accountability in ensuring that LCFF funds are being used for the students they’re intended to serve, especially foster youth and other disadvantaged students. I have made rulings to cite districts that have used LCFF funds that fall outside the intended use of LCFF.

How would you increase transparency to the public on local school district spending?
Expand All
Collapse All
R
Lance Christensen

To increase transparency on education spending, I would put every district’s budget and annual audited financial report on the Department of Education’s website. Attached to their pages would be standard metrics such as administrative costs, district salaries and benefits; bond revenue/payments; capital improvements; pension and retiree healthcare payments; unfunded liabilities; discretionary spending, etc. We need to track how much federal funding is coming into our systems and what it is paid for. I would also publish the expenses of the Department of Education in a searchable format as a model for other state agencies and departments.

D
Tony Thurmond

Transparency in local school district spending is critical. I am proud to be working to establish a portal that districts will use to provide complete transparency on how LCFF funds are being expended.

The achievement gap for students of color has stubbornly persisted, while a proposed new framework for teaching math has sparked criticism and controversy.

How would you reduce the “achievement gap” for students of color?
Expand All
Collapse All
R
Lance Christensen

Give parents choices and resources to send their kids to schools that actually care about them. Once parents start moving their kids to other schools, the local district will either improve its educational processes quickly or be replaced by the voters at the ballot box.

D
Tony Thurmond

There is no question that the pandemic unveiled tremendous mental trauma and widened the achievement gap. Closing the achievement gap has been a top priority for me. I’ve brought huge investments into recruiting and hiring more teachers of color to better reflect the students they serve. We also need solutions to address the achievement gap from an early age and outside the classroom. I’m proud to be leading the implementation of free universal preschool programs for every four-year-old in the state, universal meals for students, and record investments in wraparound services to meet students’ physical, mental health, and social services needs.

Do you support the proposed framework for teaching math?
Expand All
Collapse All
R
Lance Christensen

No. It’s a sham and that’s why 1,200 academics, math professors, and Nobel laureates pushed so hard against the framework causing the superintendent to pull it back for “review” until after the November general election.

D
Tony Thurmond

There is much work to be done to improve the math framework and we must recognize the concerns that have been raised around the draft proposal. As superintendent, I am committed to helping the State Board of Education create a math framework that promotes rigor, while eliminating racial biases in math education that have contributed to learning gaps for students.

The state is facing a severe teacher shortage that was only worsened by the pandemic, including a lack of substitute teachers that is hitting poor students the hardest.

How would you address the teacher shortage in the short term? In the long term?
Expand All
Collapse All
R
Lance Christensen

To fix the teacher shortage, the Legislature needs to immediately restore discipline in the classroom by reforming the law that strips teachers and principals of their ability to control their classrooms. It’s time to prohibit collective bargaining. Other states limit the power that teachers' unions have and still provide necessary protections for good teachers. Principals should be able to dismiss poor teachers with reasonable protections for the teachers who may be mistreated by their administration. Additionally, we should allow districts to pay teachers more money based on metrics they develop. We need to simplify the credentialing process for professionals so they can teach in the classroom after weeks, not years.

D
Tony Thurmond

Decades of budget cuts and divestment in our public schools and the affordability crisis have led to massive teacher shortages. I am leading an effort to provide $500 million in scholarships to aspiring teachers and efforts to recruit and retain 15,000 new teachers in our classrooms. This year, I’ve established a task force to identify strategies for improving compensation, training, and recruitment strategies that will create more pathways for educators and retain more teachers and classified staff. I have also led programs to fund affordable housing so educators can continue to live in the communities where they work.

Do you support increasing teacher pay? What is your position on limits on using pandemic aid for teacher salaries?
Expand All
Collapse All
R
Lance Christensen

Yes! Pay good teachers what they are worth. If we’re spending approximately $23,000 per kid with an average of 25 students per classroom, that’s around $575,000 in that classroom. We can eliminate other unnecessary mandates and costs that don’t improve our classrooms and pay good teachers a six-figure salary. We can also accommodate teachers who deal with difficult situations or challenging cohorts of students. Conversely, those teachers who are poor educators should be let go. If teachers feel like they are being fairly compensated, their classrooms will reflect excellence and encourage more students to participate in our public schools.

D
Tony Thurmond

We are facing critical teacher shortages across the state, and if we want to close that gap, we need to utilize every tool we have to recruit and retain new teachers. And that includes increasing teacher pay, building teacher housing so teachers can live where they work and providing scholarships and pathways to becoming an educator. Funding, including pandemic aid, should be used where it’s appropriate and where it directly helps us address the teacher shortage.

Loading campaign finance data…