There is a stark choice in the important state superintendent of public instruction race between the candidate of the complacent school establishment — state Sen. Tony Thurmond, D-Richmond — and another Democrat, Marshall Tuck of Los Angeles, an earnest, successful reformer who was the president of the Green Dot charter school system from 2002 to 2006 and the CEO of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a nonprofit that operated 17 urban public schools, from 2007 to 2013.
Termed-out incumbent Tom Torlakson and Gov. Jerry Brown amount to caretakers of a public education system with a deeply mixed record. In 2011, Brown memorably mocked the “siren song” of education reform, depicting advocates as dilettantes who move from theory to theory without accomplishing anything. He, of course, is wrong. Education reformers have achieved substantial success in both union states (Massachusetts and New Jersey) and non-union states (Texas and Florida) by emphasizing the need to hold everyone accountable — students, parents, teachers, principals and administrators — and by grasping the core importance of teacher quality. This doesn’t just mean firing teachers whose students don’t do well. It means using sophisticated metrics to determine how much students progress each year to help understand which teachers excel and which teaching styles work best. It means coaching up young teachers. It means accepting as a given the idea that schools can substantially improve. This is Tuck’s agenda as well.
The contrast between how reform states think about education and how California does is staggering. Instead of focusing on teacher quality, the Golden State has teacher protections so extreme — and so likely to funnel poor performing teachers to struggling schools with greater numbers of poor and minority students — that The New York Times Editorial Board in 2014 called the protections a “shameful” abuse of the civil rights of those students.
Yet Torlakson and Brown defend this status quo. As does Thurmond, who has the backing of the influential California Teachers Association. The former social services administrator responded to a question from The San Diego Union-Tribune Editorial Board about Torlakson’s biggest success by calling the 2013 enactment of the Local Control Funding Formula a “huge accomplishment.”
The law did sound good. It changed funding rules to give more money to schools with high numbers of English-language learners, foster children and students from poor families to help the students’ academic performance. But in 2015, Torlakson — with Brown’s blessing — overruled a state education official who said the extra funds couldn’t be used for teacher raises. Tuck calls that ruling “wrong” and says he would reverse it if elected. In the wake of Torlakson’s decision, it was no surprise that a comprehensive 2017 CALmatters investigation found “little evidence” that $31 billion in local control funds had helped the disadvantaged students it was supposed to help — and less desire to track how all that money has been spent. In retrospect, it looks like an enormous bait-and-switch whose real goal was helping Los Angeles Unified and other urban districts to provide teacher raisesand to pay their pension bills. The CTA may join Thurmond in seeing this as an accomplishment, but no one else should.
We endorsed Tuck against Torlakson in 2014, praising his credentials, his agenda and his understanding that California needs to update its high-school graduation requirements. We endorse him again. The case is stronger than ever for a state schools chief who is a reformer, not a caretaker.