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The Learning Curve: A $43 Million Race for State Superintendent

Perhaps the biggest job of the state superintendent is serving as a mouthpiece for what direction the state should take moving forward.

Marshall Tuck (left) and Tony Thurmond are running for state superintendent. / Photos courtesy of CALmatters and Tony Thurmond

The role of state superintendent, as head of the state Department of Education, is largely bureaucratic in practice. But for the office’s symbolic potency – and the very large bullhorn that comes with the desk – charter school-supporting billionaires and teachers unions are willing to pay handsomely.

This year’s $43 million race between two Democrats is the most expensive state superintendent race in history, according to the Associated Press. Spending is outpacing most races for the U.S. Senate, according to the Washington Post.

As usual – as if “Waiting for Superman” came out only yesterday – charter school supporters and unions yowl at each other across a bitter divide. The attack ads are very nasty. Edsource did a great rundown of the false or misleading claims being pedaled by both camps.

Putting aside the warring interest groups, the candidates themselves seem to rise slightly above banal characterization. Marshall Tuck, backed by the charter school boosters, briefly worked at a Wall Street bank, managed a group of charter schools for several years and then ran a turnaround effort for the worst-performing traditional public schools in Los Angeles. Tony Thurmond, the unions’ choice, is a former social worker, who had a difficult childhood and credits good teachers with influencing his trajectory. He went on to serve on the West Contra Costa Unified school board and in the California Assembly.

Tuck and Thurmond agree on some key issues – particularly the serious need to increase school funding. A recent Stanford University report claimed the state needs to increase school funding by more than $20 billion a year to adequately educate every child. They also agree on extending free preschool to low-income children and cracking down on poorly performing charter schools.

Differences start to emerge when it comes to the creation of new charter schools and how best to use money the state has directed to help at-risk student groups, such as low-income children and English-learners. Tuck wants to rescind guidance from the current superintendent that the money (known as Local Control Funding Formula or LCFF funds) can be used for across-the-board raises. Thurmond has said he would consider rescinding it.

Tuck would also like to pay teachers who teach in disadvantaged schools more than other teachers, but Thurmond has said he thinks teachers across different schools should be paid the same. He lines up with unions on that position.

California already has more charter schools and more charter school students than any state. Thurmond wants to temporarily stop new charters from being able to open. Tuck, obviously, disagrees. Both want to shut down for-profit charters.

Tuck does acknowledge that some areas of the state have too many charters. I spoke to him recently and he mentioned Oakland as an example of a place where he would likely not support opening new charter schools.

The Los Angeles Times editorial board – in a clearly tight decision – has endorsed Thurmond. (The paper endorsed Tuck four years ago when he ran, and narrowly lost, for the same position.) Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a former San Diego Unified school board member and education reform advocate, endorsed Tuck.

When it comes to making most of these policies a reality, the new state superintendent will have little sway – that’s the state Board of Education’s job – but he could be the biggest mouthpiece over what direction the state should take moving forward.

What I’m Reading

• Speaking of reform: I recently went back and read Katherine Boo’s amazing story in the New Yorker about reform efforts in Denver in 2007, under then-Superintendent Michael Bennet, now a senator and possible presidential hopeful. Boo follows several students at a school Bennet plans to close, as well as Bennet himself, as he tries to get a handle on running a school district.

Choice line: “After a semester of being yelled at by [the students whose school he planned to close] Bennet had begun to see them more clearly, and to see as well that, in his ardor to save them, he had managed to add to their troubles.”

• A new documentary examines how for-profit colleges disproportionately benefit from veterans using the G.I. bill, as reviewed by PBS Newshour.

• The Hechinger Report wrote about a small town in Washington that is combating “rural brain drain.” Many of Onalaska’s residents are leaving home and going to college. But the strange thing is that they’re coming back. Kaitlin Gillespie makes the case that the town’s thriving public high school – with its increasing enrollment and tightknit community – is what’s holding the town’s social fabric together.

What I’m Writing

When I first got a tip about Sweetwater Union High School District in Chula Vista facing a sudden $30 million budget crisis last month I had no idea the story would continue to unfold for weeks. Since my last newsletter, I’ve discovered that district officials raised their costs far more than they could afford. A 2015 state report warned Sweetwater officials would need to make “difficult budget decisions” – i.e., cut costs or raise revenues – in order to stay fiscally solvent. They did neither.

The fascinating backstory here is that all of Sweetwater’s current board members – who had just been on the job for a few months when that 2015 report was released – were swept into office in a rush of anti-corruption sentiment. They were offering voters transparency and good governance, after a pay-to-play construction conspiracy had scandalized the district. In their work to get Sweetwater back on its feet, they gave 3.75 percent across-the-board raises and increased the number of central office staff. But now, ironically, those decisions – which were not fiscally practical – may erode community trust even further.

The district is now in the midst of cutting roughly $19 million from the current school year’s budget to avoid going into state receivership. The cuts have already hit special education, adult education and after-school care.

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