California has never quite figured out a sensible organizational structure for governing education at the state level. The voters elect a superintendent of public instruction to run the state's Education Department. But the governor can appoint a secretary of education to oversee politics and policy, and also appoints 11 members of the State Board of Education, which sets policy for the department and implements the laws.
In other words, the superintendent's job probably shouldn't exist; instead, the secretary of education should run the department. Still, the superintendent can make a difference by pressing the board and Legislature to make needed changes, using the post's bully pulpit to argue for reforms, investigating schools' performance and compliance with the law, and interpreting how certain laws should be carried out by districts.
Tom Torlakson, who has been superintendent for the last eight years, oversaw a smooth transition to the Common Core curriculum standards, and no one should underestimate how tough that was. Things went much worse in many other states. Still, Torlakson has not displayed a sense of creativity or urgency. One of his less-admirable moments came when he softened the rules governing how districts could spend money specifically intended for the state's most at-risk students; he allowed them to use it for across-the-board teacher raises. Teachers' unions loved the decision, but it flouted the purpose of that funding.
With Torlakson termed out, voters will be choosing from among four potential successors in June, two of them strong contenders who could do the superintendent's job admirably. The two appear on the surface to present the usual choice between educational factions: One, Marshall Tuck, is supported by charter schools and accountability reformers; the other, Assemblyman Tony Thurmond (D-Richmond), is supported by teachers unions. But it would be a mistake to view them in such superficial terms.
Tuck, the former president of charter chain Green Dot Public Schools and former CEO of the school-reform effort led by then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, brought about results in both those roles. He's toned down his reform rhetoric and espouses a more rounded approach to improving schools, including a more critical look at whether charter schools are living up to their promises. As he did during his campaign for superintendent four years ago, when this page endorsed him, he has offered novel ideas for using the Education Department's website as an online space for schools to share their successful techniques.
One of the first things he'd do, Tuck says, is reverse Torlakson's decision and require the money allocated to school districts for low-income and other at-risk students to be used almost solely for those students.
Overall, Tuck would bring a new sense of energy and purpose to the position.
Yet Thurmond is the slightly stronger candidate. Though he is clearly the favorite of organized labor, Thurmond cannot be easily stereotyped as someone who will blindly support unions over all else, just as Tuck shouldn't be pigeonholed as someone who will support charter schools no matter what.
Thurmond has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to at-risk students and a deep understanding of the obstacles they face. This understanding goes as far back as his childhood growing up as a poor kid of color in Philadelphia, and extends to his jobs as a social worker helping foster kids, truants and the developmentally disabled.
His main areas of interest – including truancy prevention, mental health and support services -- stem from that work. As a freshman assemblyman, he pushed through legislation to combat chronic absenteeism, a top priority for him. He also wants to provide more STEM education and counseling for students.
Thurmond says he, too, would demand that the money intended for at-risk students go to them instead of teacher raises that help more affluent students as much as poor ones. That would put him at odds with the teachers unions.
Thurmond also has useful experience as an elected official, which Tuck lacks. Before he was elected assemblyman in his East Bay district, Thurmond was a Richmond city councilman and a school board member there. This experience, the ability to work within the framework of elected office and his deep, first-hand knowledge of students' needs set him above the rest.
Neither of the two remaining candidates is a strong contender. Lily E. Ploski is a former community college administrator who voices clear distrust of charter schools, and Steven Ireland is an LAUSD parent who wants to draw attention to the need for parent empowerment. We recommend a vote for Thurmond.