The two men running for California’s top education position spent Saturday at the only candidate forum in the fall election season to date dedicated to black student achievement. Marshall Tuck and Assemblyman Tony Thurmond (D-Richmond) answered questions onstage at Holy Names University in Oakland for almost two hours. They are vying to be the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, responsible for overseeing the education of more than 6 million California public school students.
The candidate forum was hosted by California Black Media, Black Women Organized for Political Action (BWOPA) and Sistallect, Inc., an organization focused on empowering women of color. The audience of around 150 included educators and administrators from throughout Northern California, and filled half of the auditorium. The event, intended to be an educational forum and not an endorsement, was live-streamed on Facebook to provide access to those who could not attend.
Event organizers said they wanted to create the forum to ensure that the candidates directly address the welfare of black students, and for black mothers to be informed about which candidates will make the right decisions for their children. According to organizers, 74 percent of black households in California are run by single mothers. Among the topics they wanted to discuss were funding for schools, teacher efficacy and teacher pension reform.
“F is for ‘failure,” said Kimberly Ellis, the forum’s moderator. “California ranks 41st in the nation on K-12 per-pupil spending. Juxtaposed against our number one ranking on per prisoner spending, it is truly one of those things that makes you go, ‘Hmmm.’’’ Throughout the auditorium, there was an audible murmur, punctuated by audience members nodding their heads in agreement.
Black Minds Matters, a 2015 report by The Education Trust-West, a group that advocates for academic achievement for all California students, concluded that more than half of the state’s black children live in low-income households and more than a third live below the poverty line. According to the report, student achievement and learning gaps start early for low-income children, regardless of race. The report also said black children are less likely to have access to preschool, less likely to be read to every day, and twice as likely to be identified for special education classes.
For local voters, the issue is likely to be especially pressing, given the documented achievement gap between black students and others in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). In the 2015-2016 school year, 75 percent of African American eighth grade students were considered to be “not high school ready,” according to district data. The second biggest group to receive that designation was Pacific Islander students, at 57 percent. Readiness in eighth grade is defined as having a GPA of 2.5 percent or higher, school attendance of 96 percent or better, no “Ds or Fs” in core English and Math classes and no suspensions in 8th grade. During that same school year, African American students accounted for the highest percentage of suspensions for children in all grades, according to OUSD data.
Organizers also wanted the candidates to talk specifically about how discipline is handled for black students. Tresla Gilbreath, one of the organizers with Sistallect, said the superintendents are “leaders getting ready to take on new titles, and when you have a new title, you have accountability.” Gilbreath, a Los Angeles County probation officer, said the school-to-prison pipeline in the state is “enormous,” referring to the fact that children who are suspended or expelled from school are more likely to end up in the juvenile or criminal justice system.
California’s superintendent does not have direct oversight over the education budget, but the non-partisan position can influence the governor and the legislature. Tuck, former CEO of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a non-profit that manages 18 LA Unified Schools, said there are ways to find more money for schools today, because the superintendent, “by law, can interpret all the existing laws on the books.” For him, this includes examining where the money from online sales and cannabis taxes is directed.
“We have to get serious about the corporate side of Proposition 13,” said Tuck, referring to the state ballot initiative from 1978 that, among other changes, limited how much large corporations pay in property taxes, which in turn are used to fund California public schools. Those who want to reform Proposition 13 estimate more than $9 billion in commercial property taxes are lost every year because of these tax limits.
Thurmond, who represents California’s 15th district in the State Assembly, which includes most of Oakland, said he fully supports a ballot initiative in 2020 to reform Proposition 13. He has proposed legislation like Assembly Bill 2303, which imposes a tax on private prison contracts and re-directs the profits towards preschool and after-school programs. Speaking about how much money the state spends on prison versus schools, he said, he has been “chipping away at it during my time in the legislature.”
He also said there is a “real urgency” to address the reasons for the achievement gap in education, including poverty and unemployment. “We need real interventions that will help our kids,” he said. Thurmond, a former social worker and educator, cited universal preschool, literacy campaigns, and expanding Science, Technology, Engineering, The Arts and Math education (STEAM) education as key programs. He believes getting kids into school sooner, ensuring they don’t fall behind on their literacy benchmarks, and providing a STEAM education will help set them up for success.
Moderator Ellis asked the candidates about a recent Black Parallel School Board report, which concluded that some Sacramento schools had suspension rates of more than 60 percent for black students. The report also concluded that black female students are the fastest growing group of suspensions and that black children as young as kindergarten age are being suspended. “Is there implicit bias that plays into this?” asked Ellis. She wanted to know what the candidates would do about “this disproportionate level of discipline.”
“There absolutely is implicit bias. There is discrimination. And there is racism,” said Tuck. “There is no other way to justify the results in our schools today. African Americans are 6 percent of the population [statewide] and 20 percent of suspensions.”
He cited his work in 2008 at Edwin Markham Middle School in Watts, one of the lowest-performing schools in the Los Angeles County Unified School District. At the time, there was a 33 percent suspension rate across the school and 50 percent of black students were suspended. Among the initiatives from his group was teacher training in cultural competency. Tuck said, “We don’t touch discrimination and racism in the way we need to, but we have to. Our teaching and administrative population is very different in terms of race, culture and background than most of our students.”
Thurmond agreed with Tuck about implicit bias in schools. “Kids are being suspended and expelled in kindergarten. You don’t need to hear any more about that to know there is a bias. What can a kindergartener do to be expelled?” he asked incredulously.
Thurmond pointed to research that says professional development is the best way to train teachers to recognize their own biases. But, he said, “We don’t give our educators any professional development. We pick one teacher at the school and say, ‘We’re going to send you for training. Then you come back on your own time and turn around and do a training for everybody in your own school.’ That’s like setting us up for failure right from the jump.”
The two candidates also talked about how the current teacher population doesn’t always have the same ethnic makeup as the student population. According the California Department of Education, about 76 percent of California public school students are not white, yet 63 percent of teachers are white.
Thurmond said he wants a new campaign to bring more Latino and African American teachers into schools. The audience interrupted him with applause. Tuck added that he wants to give teachers more incentives to work in low-income areas. “If you work in our toughest schools, you should get paid more,” he said.
Both men agreed that they want a racially diverse state Department of Education and agreed to an inclusion hiring quota to ensure that members of historically-underrepresented communities have key leadership positions.
Ellis also raised the issue of the rising cost of providing teacher pensions. Tuck said school districts contribute 16 percent of teachers’ payroll for pensions and that number will continue to go up. He said the governor and legislature have not addressed in the issue. “It’s not an easy issue and it’s why having someone who is not a politician on the job matters,” he said.
In response, Thurmond deadpanned: “I have a confession. I am a politician.” He went on to say he has convened a working group of experts in Sacramento to consider the issue.
Nina Senn, Oakland Unified School Board Director for District 4, listened to the debate from the front row. She said she was impressed that the two candidates got into details on important issues like Proposition 13 reform and teacher pensions. Senn has already endorsed Thurmond, she said, in part because of his longtime support for restorative justice programs, which help students solve conflicts on their own. She also cited his work advocating for Assembly Bill 1840, an education finance bill signed on Monday by Governor Jerry Brown that would help the OUSD pay back state loans. Senn said that Thurmond, who is black, “actually has life experience around the issues that matter so deeply to our families in Oakland. He is going to be able to carry that forth in his new role in the state.”
Thurmond was on his home campaigning turf on Saturday; he lives nearby in Richmond and his district includes El Sobrante, San Pablo and parts of Oakland. Organizers said they plan to host another forum in Los Angeles, where Tuck lives.
Irella Blackwood, a finance professional and mother of three, drove in from Castro Valley to hear the candidates. She said California voters have two great choices for superintendent. She was impressed to hear both candidates seem so familiar with the issues facing black students and their families. “It’s incumbent that whomever is running for this role to know the communities they are serving and not just select communities,” she said. “It means we have more representation.”