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The election for California’s superintendent is about change

Recent election results show Californians don’t have a one-size-fits-all attitude toward reforms in public education — because in a complex situation, there is no single solution that best suits the needs of everyone.

In the June primary for governor, for instance, voters dramatically rejected the candidacy of Antonio Villaraigosa, the Democratic candidate most in favor of charter schools, over that of Gavin Newsom, who has been lukewarm about the charter model.

But in the primary race for the key California superintendent of public instruction post in June, in a four-candidate contest, charter backer Marshall Tuck beat out second-place finisher Tony Thurmond, backed by the anti-charter teacher unions — but only by a 37.2 percent to 35.6 percent margin, with the rest of the vote rather surprisingly split among relative unknown candidates.

They will now face each other in the race to replace current Superintendent Tom Torlakson, also seen as in the anti-charter camp, who narrowly beat Tuck four years ago.

In favor of more student and parental choice and eager to shake up an elementary and secondary education system that isn’t working for many California families, the editorial board has long been in favor of encouraging charter schools as an important part of the mix.

Last election night, both Thurmond and Tuck told the statewide news website CALMatters that voters clearly care about other issues than just charters.

“We have a teacher shortage we should be talking about. We aren’t preparing young people for careers in technology, and we should be talking about that,” Thurmond said.

“The charter question doesn’t come up with my audiences the way it does in the media,” Tuck said. “Voters care that California’s schools aren’t serving kids well. They’re concerned about base funding levels. Not about this.”

OK — how about this issue?

Tossing a wrench into the machinery that is the California Teachers Association’s perennial backing for pay based on length of tenure rather than excellence or tough job assignments, Tuck wants to be able to pay teachers more in low-income districts.

“Our kids of color have younger, less experienced teachers and principals that turn over more often than high income kids,” Tuck said in a debate. “I believe we have to differentiate pay for high poverty communities.” Tuck, who is white, then gestured to Thurmond, the East Bay assemblyman who is African American. “He doesn’t.”

Thurmond maintains, as do the teacher unions, that this would lead to a two-tier — or multi-tier, for that matter — pay system. To which we say — so what? When he ran charter schools himself, Tuck said he paid principals with an assignment in Watts or South Los Angeles more than campus leaders in more affluent areas. And what was wrong with that? Working with children born into poverty, with parents who themselves have lower education levels, they have tougher jobs.

We do agree with Thurmond on the danger of setting up teacher and administrator pay based solely on increasing standardized test results. That would be “creating an invitation to encourage people to teach to the test,” he said in the debate. That’s a very wrongheaded approach.

But that’s not what Tuck’s innovative suggestion is all about. It’s about creating innovation through incentive in the same way businesses, nonprofits, private schools, colleges and universities do. If you work in a large organization, can you imagine the bosses being forced to pay that fellow snoring into his coffee cup in the corner carrel more than that young up-and-comer with energy and bright ideas just because she hadn’t been there as long as he has? That’s a recipe for institutional stagnation — precisely where so many California schools find themselves.

Originally from the Orange County Register’s Editorial Board.