Marshall Tuck and Tony Thurmond will face each other in the November general election for state superintendent of public instruction in what could be a closely contested and very expensive race funded by wealthy individuals who back charter schools and labor unions that want to restrict their growth.
In other words, the race may look a lot like the last one, four years ago, when Tuck, a school reformer who has run charter schools and alternative district schools in Los Angeles, narrowly lost to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson.
On Tuesday, Tuck edged Thurmond 37.2 percent to 35.6 percent, establishing himself as the front-runner to head up the nation’s largest and most ethnically diverse school system, with 6 million students. Tuck and Thurmond are both Democrats, but the office is nonpartisan — a candidate’s party affiliation is not listed on the ballot — and any candidate who gets 50 percent in the primary is the winner without requiring a runoff election.
But two relatively unknown candidates with no prior political experience prevented that. Steven Ireland and Lily Ploski together captured 27.2 percent of the vote. On Wednesday, Ploski, who finished third with 16.3 percent, endorsed Thurmond, stating in a press release, “I urge my supporters to get behind Tony’s progressive campaign to make California’s public schools the best in the nation.”
Like Torlakson, Thurmond, a second-term assemblyman, has the support of the state Democratic establishment and the state’s two teachers unions. A social worker by training, Thurmond, 49, founded or ran several nonprofit organizations that worked with low-income foster children, truant students and incarcerated children in the Bay Area before turning to politics. He served one term on the city council in Richmond and on the West Contra Costa Unified school board before being elected to the Assembly district serving Richmond, Berkeley and parts of Oakland. He chairs the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee and serves on the Assembly Education Committee.
After a short career in finance, Tuck, 44, has spent most of two decades as a school administrator. For five years he was the first president of the Green Dot Public Schools, a network of charter high schools in low-income neighborhoods of Los Angeles. He then became founding CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, whose goal was to turn around some of Los Angeles Unified’s schools with the highest dropout rates. For two years after his first run for state superintendent, he was educator in residence at the New Teacher Center, a national nonprofit based in Santa Cruz that works with districts on training and mentoring teachers and principals.
As administrator of the 2,500-employee California Department of Education, the state superintendent lacks the authority to set education policy. But the superintendent can influence it as the top elected official responsible for K-12 schools.
Tuck and Thurmond largely agree on some of the critical issues facing California’s schools: the need to substantially increase funding, address a teacher shortage, fund preschool for all children and raise achievement of low-income students.
But in interviews on Tuesday night, Thurmond and Tuck emphasized distinctions between them. Thurmond emphasized, “I am a progressive Democrat, and we will galvanize our base.” Alluding to Tuck, also a registered Democrat, Thurmond said, “I am not trying to cultivate Republican votes.”
Tuck said he is the candidate for “real change” and that he is not a “career politician,” alluding to Thurmond’s service as an elected official in Richmond and now in Sacramento. “I have done the work turning around low-performing schools.”
Tuck’s campaign has raised about $3 million and Thurmond’s campaign about $2 million. But in coming months, they may find their voices drowned out by the polarizing messages of the independent expenditure committees that endorse them and may be ready to spend millions more.
“Thurmond’s supporters will try to paint Tuck as a Trump conservative. Tuck’s strategy will be to run against the status quo and the perceived failures of the education establishment,” said Kevin Gordon, president of Capitol Advisors Group, an education consulting company based in Sacramento. “The trick will be for each to define the other guy before they can define themselves.”
As longtime political observer Dan Schnur, former director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, put it, “Will Tuck be defined as a friend of Arne Duncan,” President Obama’s secretary of education, who has endorsed Tuck, “or will he be seen as a friend of Betsy DeVos?,” Trump’s education secretary whom Tuck has sharply criticized.
Unions, led by the California Teachers Association, have donated about $3 million to an independent expenditure committee backing Thurmond.
Wealthy charter school promoters, including Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad, have already given $7 million to an independent committee supporting Tuck.*
Several of the same donors also gave heavily to independent committees supporting the gubernatorial campaign of former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. They viewed him as the candidate most likely to protect charter schools, as Gov. Jerry Brown has done for the past eight years.
But Newsom and second-place finisher John Cox, a Republican, trounced Villaraigosa on Tuesday. With Villaraigosa’s defeat, unions and charter school backers may shift dollars to the state superintendent’s race. That also happened in 2014, when Brown faced novice Republican challenger Neel Kashkari and the Tuck-Torlakson race became a proxy war over charter schools.
Other than to administer federal startup grants for charter schools, the next state superintendent will have little direct role in charter approvals or renewals. But the CTA and the California School Boards Association are expected to capitalize on Brown’s departure to try to impose restrictions on charter school expansion that could determine their future after two decades of rapid growth.
Tuck and Thurmond both say they oppose for-profit charter schools and would close those that are consistently low-performing. But they differ on important details. Tuck opposes a charter moratorium, while Thurmond favors a “pause.” Tuck opposes enabling school boards to reject a charter application based on a potential negative financial impact on their districts. Thurmond would condition approval on compensating a district for loss of revenue, a potentially expensive alternative.
Both Tuck and Thurmond said Tuesday that charter schools should not be the defining issue in the race.
“I have been to dozens of events, and charters have not been a big part of our conversation,” Tuck said. “People want to know why funding is so low, why there is a teacher shortage and why students aren’t performing at grade level.”
As a school board member, Thurmond said, he approved and reauthorized charter schools and built a high school housing both a charter school and a traditional public school. “As superintendent I would serve every single student in the state, whether they attend a charter school or a district school,” he said.
Both also said they anticipate more negative ads in the months ahead.
“Those billionaires who spent that money against me don’t know me and want to put me into a box,” Thurmond said. “It’s a false narrative.”
“I can’t prevent people from telling lies,” Tuck said, referring to ads tying him to Trump and DeVos. “They’re bad for politics and distractions from stepping up and supporting our schools. I want to change the status quo.”
* Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated that Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg have given to the independent expenditure committee supporting Marshall Tuck. At this point, they have given only the maximum personal contribution of $14,600 directly to Tuck’s campaign.