The emergence of a group of wealthy charter school supporters as a potent force has been one of the more striking recent developments in Golden State politics. While their huge donations failed to elevate former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to the runoff in the governor’s race, their clout has already reshaped the board of Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest school district.
But their apparent belief that more charter schools will solve all of public education’s woes misses the fuller schools debate Californians need — both in the governor’s race between Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Republican Rancho Santa Fe businessman John Cox, and in the state superintendent of public instruction race pitting Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, a Bay Area union Democrat, and former school leader Marshall Tuck, a Los Angeles reform Democrat supported by some of the same charter school backers funding Villaraigosa.
That’s why Newsom’s remarks on election night were so welcome. He depicted a successful public education as crucial not just for California’s economy but for the state in general. This built on themes Newsom has long outlined — starting with the need for education to be “a lifelong pursuit” that empowers Californians to launch new careers after their old occupations are wiped out by new technologies. If Newsom becomes governor as pundits predict and uses his political capital toward these goals — starting with changes in badly dated high school graduation requirements — that would be exciting. As for Cox, he supports vouchers but says the first step toward “quality” education is “more charters, of course.” Sharper differences will surely emerge.
While the stakes are lower, the race for state superintendent of schools is also of vital importance. Tuck’s reform credentials are impeccable. But Thurmond has been so close to the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers his entire time in the Legislature that if he’s elected, he could emerge as an obstacle to Newsom’s efforts to bring change to public schools. That’s because the superintendent has the compliance oversight authority to enforce — or to sandbag — many state and federal mandates meant to force schools and school districts to better handle their responsibilities. This power was on display in 2015 when current Superintendent Tom Torlakson overruled a state Department of Education official and said funds given to districts with high numbers of English-language learners, foster students and impoverished families to help those categories of students could instead be used for broader purposes — including teacher raises.
As Torlakson did when he first ran for superintendent in 2010, Thurmond touts a reform agenda. But his refusal to support changes in tenure rules that allow teachers to gain lifetime job protections after 16 months of employment is awfully telling. He needs to be repeatedly pressed over the next five months to explain how he squares this position with his claim to care about students first and foremost.
Yes, the state’s 1,200-plus charter schools are important. But they teach only about 10 percent of the state’s 6.2 million K-12 students. There’s much more to this education debate. It’s time to have it.