Top contenders to be the next California schools' chief: Tony Thurmond and Marshall Tuck.
Top contenders to be the next California schools' chief: Tony Thurmond and Marshall Tuck.

In summary

Both frontrunners to be California’s new superintendent of schools say they will transform the post into a more forceful voice for education reform—but their split on charter schools may be decisive in this costly campaign.

Most voters are unfamiliar with the state’s superintendent for public instruction, even though the public has selected one at the polls every four years since the Gold Rush. And you can’t blame them. The position has limited power.

The superintendent can’t decide how public schools are evaluated, determine their curriculum, control the amount of state funding they receive nor make it tougher for teachers to earn tenure.

Those truths could make even the most engaged voter want to tune out.

But this election cycle, both frontrunners said in interviews with CALmatters that they want to serve as a new sort of superintendent—one who will use what little authority the post has to shine a spotlight on California’s chronic academic achievement gap and prod those in power to make change.

“This job is misunderstood,” said candidate Marshall Tuck, an educator-in-residence at the New Teacher Center, a nonprofit organization that provides training. “If it’s held by the right person, the job can be incredibly influential.”

This is Tuck’s second campaign for the position. Four years ago, he narrowly lost to Tom Torlakson, who holds the post now and can’t seek reelection because of term limits. Instead he’s facing Tony Thurmond, a Democratic state assemblyman from Richmond.

“Public education saved my life,” said Thurmond, who grew up poor and was among the first in his family to go to college. He can’t return to the Assembly this year if he loses. “I’m betting it all because I know our schools can do the same for today’s youth. But we have a long way to go.”

Torlakson does little policymaking. Tuck and Thurmond both say they want to take a more activist approach and use the job’s bully pulpit to pressure the governor and the Legislature to enact policies they support.

That much they agree on, although the policies they would push have a few stark distinctions. As a result, unionized teachers are backing Thurmond and charter school proponents are supporting Tuck, and together these advocates have poured almost $10 million into committees formed to support them.

That makes the race one of the most expensive contests on this year’s ballot.

There’s even a slight possibility that the June 5 primary could determine the final winner. Unlike the case for other statewide posts on the ballot, if a candidate for schools chief garners even the slimmest majority of votes cast in the primary, that person wins the job.

A recent Public Policy Institute of California poll showed the two tied at 13 percent with three-quarters of likely voters still undecided. Those results may make sense given how much they have in common.

Both candidates are Democrats. Both plan to advocate for universal preschool and for pumping more money into the school system. Thurmond wants to tax private prisons and direct the proceeds to schools. Tuck wants to cut the prison budget by 10 percent and use the savings to boost education spending.

Speaking this week at a forum hosted by EdSource, the two men agreed that restorative justice should replace more traditional types of school discipline such as suspension and expulsion. And they both criticized the functionality of the dashboard the state created to share information about schools’ performance with the public.

What distinguishes them is their background and their supporters.

Tuck previously led the nonprofit Partnership for Los Angeles Schools and Green Dot Public Schools, overseeing and opening a mix of traditional and charter schools serving some of L.A’s poorest neighborhoods.

“I’m not a career politician,” Tuck said at the forum. “I’m an educator. I’ve done the work in schools.”

Thurmond has worked as a counselor and served on the Richmond City Council and the West Contra Costa Unified school board before joining the Assembly four years ago. Labor unions, including the powerful California Teachers Association, support his campaign. Charter school advocates back Tuck’s.

During the forum, the candidates both insisted that they aren’t beholden to the special interests that support them. They even called for campaign finance reform that would limit the role those groups may play in future elections.

“Will I be independent? Yes,” Thurmond said at the forum. “I’m not a candidate who fits in anyone’s box.”

Still, the candidates’ positions differ on several key topics where their donors’ views diverge, too.

Tuck and the California Charter Schools Association both oppose policies that would restrict the number of new charter schools that may open in the future. Thurmond said he would support a “pause” on charter school growth, while the state’s largest teachers union has called for a “moratorium.”

Another point of disagreement is the length of time teachers must work before earning tenure.

Tuck and the charter advocates back legislation that would extend the length of time teachers must work before earning tenure, although most charter teachers aren’t unionized and don’t get the job protection anyway.

Thurmond said in an interview that he supports tenure reform.

But last year, he declined to even cast a vote on a measure authored by Democratic Assemblywoman Shirley Weber of San Diego to make teachers work longer before winning tenure. The union vehemently opposed the bill and even compared Weber to Trump when urging lawmakers to vote no.

“Debates can get emotional, but name-calling and finger-pointing are never appropriate,” Thurmond said. “I hope the rest of this campaign is focused on facts, not on attacks.”

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