State Superintendent candidates take on
California’s complex education issues

From entrenched poverty to a looming pension crisis, California’s TK-12 public schools face severe challenges in the coming years. Nearly 60 percent of the state’s students receive subsidized meals, about one in five live in poverty and school districts are chronically short on money. California’s spending on education has declined to the bottom 10 states nationally in per-pupil funding and in other areas such as school counselors and nurses. This funding shortfall is expected to grow as many districts are spending an increasing percentage of their budgets on employee pension obligations and healthcare costs. Meanwhile, many school campuses are in need of renovation and repair and nearly 60 percent of California school buildings are about 40 years old.

Given this significant underinvestment, and political divides on issues such as charter schools, unions and school safety, the task of overseeing public education in the Golden State is a daunting one. Following the June primary, two candidates for the State Superintendent of Public Instruction — a position that does not set education policy but does have significant influence — have moved forward to the November election: Tony Thurmond and Marshall Tuck.


of the two will be tasked with confronting head-on the immense challenges facing California’s schools.

Thurmond, a Democrat and a former school board member in the West Contra Costa Unified School District, is the son of a Panamanian immigrant. His mother died when he was 6 and Thurmond was raised by a relative. He credits education for saving him from a tumultuous upbringing, saying forthrightly, “public schools saved my life.”

As an adult, he worked as social worker after receiving advanced degrees in law and social work. Now a member of the California Assembly representing the 15th District, Thurmond has supported education in different ways. As a member of the Assembly Education Committee, he has advocated for school safety, mental health services and gun violence prevention programs, as well as Career and Technical Education and more funding for STEM education. Thurmond has stated that he plans to return California to the top 10 states in per-pupil funding by 2022, and to first in the nation by 2026.

Tuck nearly won the State Superintendent job in 2016, finishing as the runner-up to Tom Torlakson. He has since continued his involvement in education, continuing on a path that saw him go from business school to running educational programs in Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, Tuck served as president of Green Dot Public Schools, a nonprofit network of charter schools in low-income neighborhoods, and then as founding CEO for Partnership for Los Angeles, a collaboration between the Los Angeles mayor’s office and the Los Angeles Unified School District to oversee and improve performance at 18 struggling schools. After the 2016 election, Tuck spent two years as an educator-in-residence with the Santa Cruz-based New Teacher Center, an organization that trains new teachers and school leaders to be more effective as a way to improve student achievement. Looking ahead, Tuck says that, if elected, his plans for California education include free college and credentialing for those who commit to teach for at least five years, increased pay for teachers in high-needs schools, and support for universal pre-K.

While the Superintendent of Public Instruction is a nonpartisan position, both Tuck and Thurmond are Democrats. On many issues, Tuck and Thurmond have expressed similar goals, including lowering the achievement gap, improving teacher recruitment and boosting spending on education. In some areas, the two candidates are further apart.

To learn more about where Tuck and Thurmond stand on key educational issues, CSBA — which does not endorse candidates for elected office — spoke with both individually at the 2017 Annual Education Conference and Trade Show in San Diego. CSBA’s Immediate Past President Susan Henry first talked with Thurmond. The next day, CSBA President Mike Walsh spoke with Tuck. The conversations lasted 15 minutes each, and both candidates were asked the same questions on five topics: the Local Control Funding Formula, school funding, accountability, the role of charter schools and their views on school boards, school board governance and local control.

As voters consider their choices for the November election, Thurmond and Tuck’s remarks on these topics are below, edited for clarity and length. The full interviews can also be viewed online at

What is your view of the Local Control Funding Formula and the its effectiveness? What changes, if any, would you support?

Tony Thurmond: First of all, I’m glad that we have LCFF and its emphasis on students who need additional support and [on] local control. But I don’t think we should stop there. And I’ll tell you there are many in our state who think that we’ve solved all of education’s problems just because we have LCFF funding. I think we can do better than that. I think we can put $7 or $8 billion into public education right now by changing the way commercial property tax is assessed. We can protect seniors and homeowners. That’s a great thing. Let’s get you $7 or $8 million for public education in California. As Superintendent, I can think of no more important job than that.

Marshall Tuck: I’m a big supporter of the Local Control Funding Formula. [But] LCFF will never be truly effective until we fully fund our schools. So, no matter how we distribute the dollars, if we’re 41st in funding, it’s not going to actually get us to truly have equity for all of our kids.

In terms of changes, we have to increase base-funding levels. That has to be a starting point for all of our kids. In parallel, we got to make sure the supplemental and the concentration grants are actually getting to the kids that they’re intended for to get to equity.

Then, lastly, we’re going to make sure that the LCAP [Local Control and Accountability Plan] doesn’t just become a kind of backdoor bureaucracy and ensure that it’s something that is actually doing what it’s meant to do, versus taking away and kind of smothering the local control, which I think is a real risk.

Since the 1970s, there has been a general disinvestment in California public schools with California sliding from fifth in the nation in per-pupil funding in 1970 to 45th currently, depending on which index you use. So what should we as a state do to reverse this trend?

Tony Thurmond: There’s no accident that we were fifth in the 1970s and Prop. 78 was passed shortly after 1970. And so now we are 46th in the nation in per-pupil spending. We’re 43rd in the nation when you look at third grade reading and third grade math. Quite simply, we need to change the way we assess commercial property taxes and provide revenue for our students.

We spend $5 billion on private prisons and companies that profit off of prisons, and we spend so little on K-12 education, that I’ve introduced a bill that taxes private prisons and puts the money where it belongs — in your hands for universal preschool and after-school programs in our state.

We’ve got to create a narrative that says we invest in our students to have higher education opportunities and to graduate high school. I think that we can quickly right-size how our funding equation works so we’re not dependent on whether or not we have an up economy or a down economy. And put enough funding in our general funds in our school districts to make California’s funding situation number one.

Marshall Tuck: We have to make sure the public and the Sacramento politicians understand how big of a funding crisis we have. So, we’ve got to get the public to have a much better understanding of what’s actually going on in terms of funding in our schools.

I want to launch a marketing campaign so that we actually come together, and actually re-educate the public on, one, where are the funding levels? And two, let’s remind them about the promise of public education, get the state excited about our schools again.

Secondly, we [have] got to actually prioritize public schools in our state budget. So, at the same time that our funding’s gone way down in public schools, guess what’s gone way up? Incarceration. Right? That is unacceptable. We’ve got to move those dollars over to education.

Lastly, we have to find new revenue streams. You know, we [have] got to be top 20 percent in funding in the country. So, we’re going to have to look at, whether it be Prop. 13 [or] the overall tax structure, we have to find more funding for our schools.

What more do we need to do in California to achieve an accountability system that is focused less on compliance and more on transformation and closing the achievement gap?

Tony Thurmond: We’ve got to be honest with ourselves when it comes to the opportunity gap, we’ve seen the test results that have come out recently and we know that there are huge challenges for many of our students. So for those reasons, I’ve launched a statewide conversation about how we close the opportunity gap. And we’ve invited educators from across the state to look at your scores and to make sense of the data and to figure out how we can support you. And I’m very proud that in the Legislature, we’ve put more money into the budget at the Department of Education to provide coaches to every single district to help you strengthen your plans for closing the achievement gap. And so I think we have to double down on those investments and provide more support. We’ve got to get past blame. Accountability for too long has meant, “Who can we blame?”

We’ve got to invest more in programs to help our students who experience social economic challenges. In LA Unified, we have 14,000 homeless students. We have students who come to school hungry and who’ve been impacted by trauma.

And I think we’ve got to do extra work to address the issue of chronic absenteeism in our state. We know that many kids in our state miss more than 10 percent of school. So not only do we put them in a position where they’re more likely to drop out, but the state leaves $1 billion on the table in [Average Daily Attendance Revenue] that should be in your districts.

Marshall Tuck: I learned early in my career that an accountability system has to be focused mostly on developing and improving our schools and our educators, and rather than just compliance. I think our state, too often, makes that same mistake, which is focusing on data and accountability as a compliance lever rather than as one that’s truly about helping support districts, truly about helping us identify where our school is struggling, and how do we give them more supports? For the achievement gap to truly be closed, we have to identify across all subgroups, where is there underperformance and differentiate our resources, differentiate our time and our supports to make sure we’re giving those young people what they need.

What is your opinion of the role of charter schools in public education in California?

Tony Thurmond: I’m a co-author of a bill that will ban for-profit charter schools in the state of California. I don’t believe that education is about competition. I think we should give every single student a chance. As a Legislator, I have voted for several bills to require accountability from charter schools. From the Brown Act to saying, “You can’t push a student out because they have a special education need,” and to saying that if you have a financial interest on the board of that charter school, you must be transparent and report that financial interest.

Marshall Tuck: I’ve led a charter school district, and I’ve also led district public schools. So, I think I have a good sense of both the benefits and the trade-offs. Ultimately, I think that nonprofit charters, particularly in high-need areas, are a positive for our public education system. But there are unintended consequences, which I think need to be [addressed] with policy. First and foremost, for-profit charters should be banned in the State of California. Secondly, we [have] got to make sure that charters are actually being transparent. And I think we have to have stronger accountability. If a charter school is consistently not educating kids well, if a charter school is misusing public funds, they should be shut down.

What is your view of school boards and school board governance? And how do you believe the State Superintendent of Public Instruction can help promote local control?

Tony Thurmond: Well local control means to me that you all were elected by your community and that you are the ones held accountable by your communities. So those of us in Sacramento should get out of the way and support you and let you do the work in your local community. If there’s a decision that needs to be made about whether or not there’s going to be a charter school, that decision rests with the organization that has to host that charter school — that’s the local school board. I believe completely [in] student control at the local level. I think that the best thing that we can do in Sacramento and the Legislature is provide you the funding that you need to carry out the mandates that are being passed down by the Legislature and by the State Board of Education.

Marshall Tuck: I’m a huge fan of local control, and I’m a fan of school boards. I think school boards are an essential part of the public education system. And I think far too often, Sacramento does not give local control to school boards or enough local control. This is something that I think my career shows, and I will push very hard on. To me, it’s very straightforward. We have to get you more flexibility from the California Education Code. We’ve got to work hard to make that happen. It just has to … it’s 2,500 pages, it doesn’t make sense for kids or teachers. That’s going to take time, that goes through the Legislature.

Hugh Biggar is a staff writer for California Schools.