California is 44th in U.S. News and World Reports Pre K – 12th grade education rankings measuring how well states are preparing students for college.
The reason often given for California’s low ranking is that its per-pupil spending lags behind the nation’s average. Educating California’s students is complicated by efforts to accommodate a student population made up of a larger share of English learners (23.2%, highest in the nation) and students from low-income families (54.1%, higher than the national average).
A reason for California’s poor performance not getting the attention it deserves is for the last 25 years its Superintendent of Public Instruction has not been a career educator with administration experience.
Most states’ Department of Education are headed by an experienced educator appointed by the Governor or State Board of Education. California is among thirteen states electing the head of the Department of Education and even a majority of those states (seven) have a career educator as their education chief.
Most states choose career educators to head their Department of Education because experienced school administrators know how state policies affect the education process and their experience enables them to identify policy changes necessary to better prepare students to be college or career ready.
Educating a diverse population of over 6 million students, more than the number of students in 23 states combined, is a challenging job where experience running schools should be a prerequisite for candidates for superintendent.
For years, Superintendent of Public Instruction has been a revolving door for former-California legislators. While experienced school administrators seek the job, veteran politicians have been more skilled in winning the most votes despite schools ranking near the bottom of all states under their leadership.
Tom Torlakson the current Superintendent of Public Instruction, a former legislator, is leaving office. Vying to replace him is Marshall Tuck, a career education and Tony Thurmond, who represents California’s 15th District in the State Assembly.
Tuck is a school administrator with almost 20 years’ experience. He is a former President of Green Dot Public Schools, a network of charter schools in low-income neighborhoods, former CEO of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, where he turned around 18 struggling elementary, middle and high schools and most recently, he was educator in residence at the New Teacher Center a nonprofit that trains new teachers and principals. The fact that he has managed big bureaucracies is important to recognize since the superintendent runs the state Department of Education which employs over 2,000 people.
Assemblyman Thurmond is a former school board member and city councilman from Richmond with a 20-year career in social work and nonprofit management. Tuck’s campaign touts his experience as a school administrator running high performing charter schools and turning around low performing public schools. His experience gives him a clear understanding of the policy reforms needed to improve the education system for California’s students.
Thurmond is running an aspirational and inspirational campaign to cover for his lack of experience running schools. His campaign features his life’s story. As a child, his mother died of cancer, he did not know his father and he was raised by a cousin relying on the help of public assistance programs.
Overcoming those life challenges, he attended college and gained elected office and it’s this experience that has given him a personal depth of knowledge of the issues many students face and a sincere belief that “education saves lives”.
There is little difference between the candidates on the fundamental educational challenges that need to be addressed, like finding a way to increase school funding, solving the teacher shortage, and closing disparities in academic achievement among students with different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Their positions on how to best tackle those challenges are informed by their backgrounds and job experiences.
Differentiating between the candidates is the dilemma California voters face. The primary campaign was very close, with Tuck receiving 37 percent and Thurmond 35.6 percent of votes. The vote closeness is a testament to Thurmond’s effective campaign strategy and the negative campaign waged against Tuck by Thurmond’s supporters.
If superintendent was an appointed position as it is in 38 states and the choice being made by a Governor or State Board of Education was between Tuck and Thurmond, Tuck the school administrator would likely be chosen over Thurmond the social worker turned politician.
While Thurmond’s life story is compelling and his desire to see California students receive a better quality education is no doubt sincere, we should not elect him superintendent, when his opponent is Tuck, who is just as sincere in wanting a better quality of education for students and has the experience to deliver it.
Qualifications matter in taking on the challenge of improving California’s public education system. As a state, also the world’s fifth-largest economy, we can and must do better in providing a quality education for our children. It’s time we elect an experienced educator, Superintendent of Public Instruction. Vote for Marshall Tuck on November 6.
Joe Bowers for the Inland Empire Voice. Joe is a public education advocate that lives in Los Angeles and is a retired engineer and business executive. He is a graduate of Stanford University.