California is 44th in U.S. News and World Reports Pre K – 12th grade education rankings that measures how well states are preparing students for college.
The reason for California’s low ranking is that its per-pupil spending lags behind the nation’s average. Educating California’s students is more challenging than in other states because the student population made up of a large number of English learners (23.2% of students, highest in the nation) and a large number of students from low-income families (54.1% of students, higher than the national average).
An overlooked reason for California’s low national performance is for the last 25 years its chief of public schools, the Superintendent of Public Instruction has not been a career educator.
The Department of Education in most states is headed by an experienced educator appointed by the Governor or State Board of Education. California is among thirteen states electing the head of the Department of Education and even a majority of those states (seven) elects a career educator their education chief.
Career educators are selected to head state education departments because they know how state policies affect the education process and their experience helps them formulate policy changes needed to better prepare students to be college or career ready.
California educates a diverse population of 6.2 million students, more than the number of students in 23 states combined, yet its education chief is less experienced than their counterparts in most states because Superintendent of Public Instruction has been a revolving door for former-California legislators.
Although experienced school administrators run for superintendent, politicians have convinced voters they can manage the job overseeing public education despite a history of California’s schools consistently ranking near the bottom of all states under their leadership.
Tom Torlakson the current Superintendent of Public Instruction, a former legislator, is leaving office. Vying to replace Torlakson is Marshall Tuck, a career educator and Tony Thurmond, who represents California’s 15th district in the State Assembly.
Tuck is a school administrator with almost 20 years experience. He is a former President of Green Dot Public Schools, a network of charter schools in low-income neighborhoods, former CEO of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, where he turned around 18 struggling elementary, middle and high schools and most recently he was educator in residence at the New Teacher Center a nonprofit that trains new teachers and principals.
Assemblyman Thurmond is a former school board member and city councilman from Richmond with a 20 year career in social work and nonprofit management.
Tuck’s experience as a school administrator running high performing charter schools and turning around low performing public schools gives him a clear understanding of the policy reforms needed to improve California’s education system. Tuck is the only candidate that’s managed big bureaucracies, which is valuable experience since the superintendent runs a state department employing over 2,000 people.
Thurmond lacks experience running schools. He is running an aspirational and inspirational campaign that focuses on his life story. As a child, his mother died of cancer, he did not know his father and he was raised by a cousin relying on the help from public assistance programs. Overcoming those life challenges, he graduated from college and gained elected office and he claims his record of advocacy for students shows he has insight into how to address the issues many public school students face.
There is little difference between Tuck and Thurmond on the fundamental educational challenges that need to be addressed, like finding a way to increase public school funding, solving the teacher shortage, and closing disparities in academic achievement among students with different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Choosing between the candidates has been difficult for voters. The primary election was very close. Tuck received 37 percent and Thurmond 35.6 percent of votes cast. The closeness of the primary can be attributed to Thurmond running a campaign that effectively deflected voters from realizing he lacks experience as an educator and to the dishonest, negative campaign waged against Tuck by Thurmond’s special interest supporters.
While Thurmond’s life story is compelling and his desire to see California students receive a better quality education is no doubt sincere, there is no reason to expect he will be more successful in the job than Torlakson, who endorses him and other politicians who were elected superintendent.
If superintendent was an appointed position as it is in 37 states and a Governor or State Board of Education responsible for the appointment had to chose between Tuck and Thurmond, they would likely chose Tuck the school administrator over Thurmond the social worker turned politician.
Qualifications matter in taking on the challenge of improving California’s public education system. As a state we can and must do better in providing a quality education for our children. It’s time to elect an experienced educator Superintendent of Public Instruction. The choice is clear, vote for Marshall Tuck on November 6.
Joe Bowers is a Los Angeles based public education advocate. He is a retired engineer and business executive. He is a graduate of Stanford University.