After COVID-19 school chaos, California lawmakers debate role of superintendent

State Supt. of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, right, as Gov. Gavin Newsom, background, looks on.
California Supt. of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, front, joins Gov. Gavin Newsom at a school event in Cameron Park, Calif., in 2019.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

When California children were stuck at home in distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic and schools reopened unevenly across the state, raising equity concerns, frustrated parents demanded action from Supt. of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond.

But unlike other states, where superintendents were leading the charge, it was Gov. Gavin Newsom who steered the pandemic response in California, negotiating with teachers unions and setting guidelines for schools. Meanwhile, Thurmond was criticized for a lack of action.

Now, two years after the governor and legislative leaders devised a multibillion-dollar plan to safely reopen schools, lingering COVID-19 frustrations could add momentum to a decades-long debate about the role of California’s superintendent of public instruction.


Assemblymember Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) has introduced legislation that would require California’s superintendent to be appointed by the governor instead of elected by voters, in what he called a “good government” policy that could add power and influence to an office that oversees nearly 6 million public school students.

McCarty said that Thurmond has “admirably” led the state’s schools and has been “an effective voice,” but that’s not enough, calling the role “nothing more than an education cheerleader.”

“The public saw crystal clear during the pandemic that what school districts and parents and educators thought the superintendent can do is not the reality,” McCarty said. “They’re very limited in their statutory authority.”

A Times survey of over 20 school districts found that those in wealthier, whiter communities were more likely to be moving full steam ahead to reopen elementary schools.

Feb. 11, 2021

The success of Assembly Constitutional Amendment 9 — which would require voter approval because it would change the state Constitution — would add California to a list of 38 states where superintendents are appointed rather than elected.

Thurmond opposes the bill, and the politically influential teachers unions that endorsed him are poised to do the same.

If approved by two-thirds of the Legislature and by voters on the ballot, the bill would go into effect in 2027 after Thurmond’s final term has ended. The measure would prohibit an election for superintendent from being held in 2026. The potential appointee would “serve at the pleasure of” the governor, with confirmation required by the state Legislature, according to the bill.


Thurmond, a former Democratic state lawmaker, cruised to reelection last year with more than 60% of the vote against his Republican opponent Lance Christensen despite controversy during his first term, including a staff turnover problem amid toxic workplace allegations. His decision to quietly hire a friend living out of state as a top official in 2021 led to at least two resignations in the California Department of Education.

Thurmond said in a statement that ACA 9 would “take away the selection from the voters and strip away an independent voice for education.”

McCarty, who serves on education committees in the state Legislature, said he is not interested in the role of superintendent himself.

Superintendent of public instruction, the only nonpartisan position among California’s eight statewide constitutional officers, has long been described as toothless and ceremonial.

The superintendent oversees operation of the California Department of Education, but local school officials control much of what happens in the 1,000-plus school districts, and in many ways, the governor and the Legislature have more power over education policy. The State Board of Education acts as a policymaking body as well, adopting textbooks and academic standards.

Democratic incumbent Tony Thurmond and Republican challenger Lance Christensen will face off in the race for superintendent of public instruction to oversee California schools.

Sept. 20, 2022

Debate over whether the role should be an elected or appointed position has been ongoing for decades. “Once again, the issue of how the State Superintendent of Public Instruction shall be chosen is making news on the political front in California,” stated a report published by the California Assembly in 1963.


Heather Hough, executive director of Policy Analysis of California Education, a nonpartisan research center at Stanford University, said it makes sense that the chaos of the pandemic has brought this debate back into the public domain — a time in which more scrutiny was on the office of the superintendent than she’s seen in her decades of policy work.

“I think the pandemic really brought it into view for the public in a way that it wasn’t before, how there isn’t a lot of positional authority in that role, which then does call the question: why do we have an elected official if that position doesn’t have the ability to lead associated with it?” she said. “The way it’s constructed in California now is largely an administrative position.”

Supporters of the superintendent being an appointed post say that politicians should not seek out the position but qualified school administrators.

Being appointed by the administration could create a better guarantee of “wide-scale change,” said Megan Bacigalupi, executive director of California Parent Power, a statewide advocacy organization launched at the height of the pandemic focused on transparency in schools.

“Now, there’s a disconnect between the two offices, and that’s a disservice to California students,” she said.

Malia Vella, deputy superintendent for the California Department of Education, said that Thurmond has been a productive superintendent, pointing to legislation he has sponsored regarding issues like universal preschool and additional school counselors. Vella said he played an important role in supporting schools during the pandemic, including fighting for access to COVID-19 tests.


That work would be “curtailed,” she said, if future superintendents are appointed rather than elected.

“I think the legislative and budget process works best when you have an independently elected official whose sole focus is on education,” Vella said.

California state officials, including treasurer, education superintendent and insurance commissioner, expected to win reelection despite scandals.

Sept. 27, 2022

California Teachers Assn. spokesperson Claudia Briggs said the union has not formed an official position on the bill yet but noted that it has opposed similar attempts in the past, “not wanting to take that choice away from parents and voters.”

California Federation of Teachers President Jeff Freitas said, “We support democracy in our public education system.”

ACA 9 would allow the governor to choose how long a superintendent serves; currently, the position is limited to two four-year terms like other statewide constitutional officers.

Connie Leyva, a former Democratic state senator, has expressed interest in running for state superintendent in 2026. Now executive director of KVCR, an NPR station in the Inland Empire, Leyva said she is undecided if she will run but is staunchly opposed to McCarty’s bill.


For the record:

5:15 p.m. March 9, 2023A previous version of this story stated that Connie Leyva was a former member of the state Assembly. Leyva served in the state Senate.

“In a time when we need more civic engagement and need to strengthen democracy, why would we take an elected position away and make it appointed? It makes no sense to me,” she said. “I always feel that appointments lend themselves to be rife with political favoritism.”

Delaine Eastin, a Democrat who served as state superintendent from 1995-2003, said ACA 9 would diminish an independent role in a state where education commandeers at least 40% of the budget each year. The superintendent should act as a stronger advocate for public school students, not a soldier for the governor, she said.

“If any constitutional officer should be elected other than the governor, it should be the [superintendent of public instruction],” she said. “I really do believe that the superintendent needs to be somebody who is a voice for the children and their education and not just going along to get along with the governor.”