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Santa Cruz Sentinel: Elect Tuck as California’s next schools chief

What really makes a difference in California? Our public schools.

In the Nov. 6 election, voters have an opportunity to do something about the chronic problems plaguing our public schools: achievement gaps for economically disadvantaged kids, absenteeism, teacher burnout, a broken tenure system and administrative ennui.

We believe, however, that electing reformer Marshall Tuck to be state superintendent of public instruction will shake up the status quo — for the better.

It just seems we’ve been touting Tuck for eons, but we did endorse him in 2014 in his narrow loss to incumbent Tom Torlakson, who was backed by teachers’ union and has been careful not to go up against the education establishment in his two terms.

Tuck is running against Democratic East Bay Assemblyman Tony Thurmond. In the June primary, Tuck beat out second-place finisher Thurmond by a 37.2 percent to 35.6 percent margin, with the rest of the vote rather surprisingly split among relative unknown candidates.

Thurmond has a compelling backstory as the son of a Panamanian immigrant mother who died when he was 6. He ended up in foster care and went through school with the assistance of government programs.

Tuck’s credentials include a Harvard MBA and an impressive background in educational reform. He gained national attention for turning around 18 high-poverty, low-performing charter schools in Los Angeles, before then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa recruited him to improve schools within the conventional public school system.

Tuck also spent two years with the New Teacher Center in Santa Cruz, which works to improve student learning by training new teachers and school leaders to be more effective.

The buzz words around the campaign are “charter schools” and “teacher pay.” Tuck favors charters; Thurmond, like Torlakson, is backed by the anti-charter teacher unions.

Both Thurmond and Tuck oppose for-profit charters, which only comprise a fraction of charters in California, but command a lot of political attention.

Thurmond, however, says he would block approvals of new charters without additional state funding. Tuck correctly sees this would stop most new charters from opening, leaving few alternatives for parents and students in failing districts.

Both candidates say voters clearly care about other issues as well.

“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 told the statewide news website CALmatters.

“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.”

That’s probably why Tuck also campaigns on paying teachers more in low-income school districts, rather than on the length of tenure. Tuck also supports rewarding good teachers and changing the rules to get rid of bad ones.

“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, motioned toward Thurmond, who is African American. “He doesn’t.”

Thurmond echoes the teacher unions that Tuck’s proposal would lead to a two-tier pay system.

What’s wrong with that? Tuck says that when he ran charter schools he paid principals with an assignment in the most disadvantaged districts in LA more than administrators in more affluent areas. Paying them more for dealing with difficult challenges recognizes they have tougher jobs.

But California’s tenure system of granting teachers tenure after, essentially, just 18 months on the job, does not encourage reforms, essentially rewarding years of service over incentivizing innovation.

Tuck is able to see the bigger picture on a variety of issues facing schools, including the state’s rapidly escalating pension costs that are taking out money from school districts almost as fast as Sacramento can send along more money. He also says he will share with the governor and legislators how state policies are affecting children.

Elect Marshall Tuck as California schools chief, and make a statement you want to ensure the next generation is equipped to successfully navigate the coming economic and social challenges in our state.

Santa Cruz Sentinel Editorial Board.