Tony Thurmond, who spent a childhood in the sort of poverty that mirrors the lives of many California school children, was sworn in on Monday as state superintendent of public instruction, becoming the second African American to hold the office.
Thurmond will oversee the California Department of Education as the top education administrator in a state where majority of students come from low-income households.
“I talk all the time about how easy it would’ve been for me to end up in state prison. Instead, I ended up elected to be the next superintendent of public instruction,” Thurmond said after taking his oath of office at a ceremony at C. K. McClatchy High School in Sacramento.
Flanked by his family, he spoke of how public education “changed the narrative of my life,” adding that he hopes to push policies that help do the same for disadvantaged students.
Thurmond also sought to position himself as a bridge builder at a moment when labor tensions are high both nationally and in California, and as California’s largest teachers’ union is threatening to strike in Los Angeles later this month.
He said his time in office will be driven by a push for significant funding increases for public education and urgent efforts to close a perpetual gap in student achievement negatively impacting the state’s neediest students. Both are themes Thurmond pushed during the competitive election for state superintendent.
“We’ve got to change the narrative of education in this state and in this country,” Thurmond said. “There’s no reason for the fifth-wealthiest economy in the world to be 45th or 46th in per-pupil spending. My top priority is let’s make our kids No. 1 and fund our schools like they’re No. 1.”
While he acknowledged that the office of the state superintendent grants him limited authority over education policymaking, Thurmond said he plans to use his bully pulpit to play a vocal role in education policy discussions.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, a Democrat from Paramount, and other Democratic state legislators spoke glowingly of Thurmond. Many of Thurmond’s priorities, such as more school funding and expanding early childhood education programs, align with those of the Legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom.
The legislators who attended Thurmond’s swearing-in ceremony underscored Thurmond’s life story, stressing the ways his own youth helped prepare him for issues affecting the state’s public-school students.
“Our schools are filled with children living in poverty,” said state Sen. Maria Elena Durazo of Los Angeles. “Starting today, those children will have a leader who grew up in that kind of poverty.”
Thurmond’s ceremony also drew several school board members, education officials and advocates, former state superintendents, and even students from the West Contra Costa County School District, where Thurmond previously served as a school board member.
Thurmond defeated Marshall Tuck for state superintendent in November in a costly and divisive race that many observers viewed as a proxy for the charged debate over charter schools and education reforms. The race drew more than $60 million in campaign spending from teachers unions and wealthy philanthropists who support charters, with a majority of the spending coming from the latter group.
Beyond pushing an eight-year plan for more funding, Thurmond said Monday that his immediate priorities will be aimed at addressing the state’s teacher shortage, school safety, mental health services and improved programs for English language learners.
“We’re going to work hard to give you the money that you need to fully fund education in our schools so that we can put our money where our mouth is and so that we can be No. 1,” state Sen. Connie Levya of Chino told Thurmond. “We lead in everything in California. We need to lead in education, and we have the right leader at the helm to help us do this.”