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Editorial: Fixing California’s schools is tough work, and Tony Thurmond needs to be tougher

Tony Thurmond speaks outside of Enrique S. Camarena Elementary School on July 21 in Chula Vista.
California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond speaks outside of Enrique S. Camarena Elementary School on July 21 in Chula Vista.
(Denis Poroy/Associated Press)

If California’s governance over schools made any sense, the state wouldn’t have both an elected superintendent of public instruction who oversees the Department of Education and an education advisor to the governor. It would have a single appointed secretary of education — just as it has an appointed health and human services secretary— who manages the department and reports to the governor’s appointed state school board. That way, there would be a clear line of responsibility and policy from the governor on down.

Instead, elected superintendents run the department but have very little power over schools in the state. They could be at odds with the state board and the governor, but with no authority to do anything about it. The superintendent can draw up and push for legislation or a policy shift, but for that matter, so can a lobbyist. The main source of power in the job is access to the bully pulpit, where a superintendent with an ability to persuade and form important alliances can influence policy.

Over the years, California’s elected superintendents have done that with varying levels of success. Delaine Eastin was among those who made a mark, talking Gov. Pete Wilson and the Legislature into funding drastically reduced class sizes — which had some unintended consequences as teacher shortages led to the hiring of many underqualified instructors — and leading the charge for setting academic standards and accountability testing. She also wasn’t afraid to publicly disagree with Wilson about bilingual education, which she supported. Eastin lost that battle, but her leadership on this and other issues mattered.

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The state’s current superintendent, Tony Thurmond, has been unfortunately lacking on that very front, and it was most noticeable over the last year and half when the state’s schools most needed guidance and a firm hand. Leading during a global health crisis would have been a challenge for anyone, but Thurmond’s lack of experience in leadership made him particularly weak at guiding schools through the COVID-19 pandemic.

He should have played a major role in determining when schools would be shuttered and when they would be reopened, and under what conditions — masks, vaccinations and the like.

But Thurmond hasn’t been a highly visible or forceful presence. While school districts were setting widely disparate policies about how many hours a day students would spend with teachers during remote learning, or when to reopen campuses, Thurmond should have been pushing loud and hard for more and better instructional time and for timely reopenings. When it came to COVID-19 testing or vaccination mandates, several school districts, especially Los Angeles Unified, were out ahead of the state.

Schools were avid for help in figuring out firm protocols for remote learning and reopening classrooms. They received very little from the state. Nor did Thurmond come out with positions that were in any way different from those of the powerful California Teachers Assn., which spent heavily to put him in office.

The lack of firm rules for schools during the pandemic was in large part the responsibility of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has the final say. But voters elect a state superintendent of schools and have a right to expect that person to be the voice of children’s needs, pushing for standards and, when necessary, calling out policies that don’t serve students.

Newsom isn’t one to share the limelight in the best of times, but it was clear that even behind the scenes, the governor was not relying on the schools superintendent to shape policy. Thurmond was absent from various news events about the schools. This was especially noticeable during the governor’s recent announcement of quasi-mandates for COVID-19 vaccination in the schools, where Newsom was joined instead by state Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond.

But those absences could have had more to do with another aspect of Thurmond’s performance.

In the days before the vaccine announcement, Politico reported that since Thurmond took over, nearly two dozen senior officials had left the education department to escape what they described as a toxic regime. They accused Thurmond of focusing on his public image over spearheading meaningful education initiatives.

Thurmond doesn’t deny the allegations in the story. In an interview with a Times editorial writer, he said he sets high standards for employee performance and is direct with people. But he acknowledged that he has to improve his management and personnel skills. OK, that’s a much better first step than defensiveness.

Next year, Thurmond will be expending time and effort on his campaign to be reelected to another four-year term. But if he wants to earn that term, mending the department, which reportedly has been frozen into near-inaction on some fronts, will be just one of the many failings he’ll need to overcome.

Thurmond has been constructive since he took office in 2019. For example, his department located computer equipment and personal protective gear as well as some COVID-19 tests to distribute to schools. It was a fraction of what was needed, but it helped. He pulled together grants for student mental health, family outreach and community schools, which provide health and social services in addition to the traditional teaching.

Perhaps his biggest accomplishment was advocating for universal transitional kindergarten, which was signed into law last week.

Thurmond’s efforts to increase funding and services to populations in need are admirable, as are his initiatives to get all kids reading by third grade and to improve the academic success of Black students. But those need to result in concrete measures that will bring about real improvement, including a statewide reading curriculum based on a body of real evidence, which might not be popular with all teachers. In other words, Thurmond must take on the tough stuff over the next year.

Before the next election, Californians need to see a state superintendent of public instruction who is more willing to take difficult positions, irritate his allies from time to time, lead school districts with firm opinions and guidance, call out the governor and push hard, and then push again, for policies that will make a meaningful mark on schools.


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