The two candidates for California’s top public education office promise to make college affordable and accessible for all, but their powerful supporters raised questions about who they would represent after Nov. 6.
California state Assemblyman Tony Thurmond and New Teacher Center educator-in-residence Marshall Tuck hope to become the next state superintendent of public instruction.
The non-partisan office of superintendent is the highest education post in the state, overseeing more than 10,000 schools, according to the California Department of Education.
Both Thurmond and Tuck said they would like to see free or reduced college tuition fees statewide.
“We have to make our public school system affordable,” Tuck said. “It’s outrageous. We need to get costs down and work our way to free or affordable post-secondary education.”
California college student fees rose an average of 21 percent between 2013 and 2016, according to the Public Policy Institute.
“I intend to fight hard to make sure there are no more fee increases,” Thurmond said. “I’m going to use this position to improve college affordability.”
Thurmond hosted an Oct. 4 meeting at UC San Diego where he announced he would sponsor a bill to lower college costs as well as reduce student homelessness and food insecurity. Thurmond introduced student-written bills every year he served as a California legislator, including guaranteeing voting rights for student school board members across the state.
“My entire career has been about helping kids with disadvantaged backgrounds, not just kids with money,” Thurmond said.
Tuck said he would push for free pre-kindergarten and college and career preparedness programs to narrow achievement gaps.
Tuck won 37 percent of the vote to Thurmond’s 35.6 during the state primary election on June 5. The two candidates are Democrats, yet their backgrounds and supporters are quite opposite.
Thurmond spent more than 20 years as a social worker and politician to improve public education by working with at-risk youth and authoring laws to improve public education for low-income students, including AB 1014 for reducing truancy and AB 2186, which would create $200 million in grant funding for STEM programs.
“I’m going to fight for every single kid,” Thurmond said. “I’ve been in the fight in places where the struggle is the greatest. The people who support my opponent have been on the sideline.”
California Teachers Association President Eric Hines said teacher unions support Thurmond because of his commitment to education and his work with underserved students.
“Tony’s entire career has been about students who would otherwise be pushed into our incarceration system,” Hines said.
Tuck led a nonprofit to boost academic achievement for struggling Los Angeles public schools. Tuck improved safety, attendance and increased four-year graduation rates by more than 60 percent, according to The Partnership for Los Angeles Schools.
“Middle and upper-class kids have never been in failing schools. It’s only our neediest kids that have been stuck in broken, failing schools for decades,” Tuck said.
Tuck received more than $5 million in campaign contributions from wealthy donors, such as The Gap Inc. co-founder Doris Fisher, billionaire entrepreneur Eli Broad, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and Walmart Inc. heiress Alice Walton. Thurmond’s campaign raised $3 million, according to the California Secretary of State website.
“I’m being supported by educators and my opponent is being supported by billionaires and Republicans who want to dismantle public education,” Thurmond said.
Tuck defended the contributions stating his campaign “doesn’t take a dime from PACs or corporations.”
Kevin Gordon, president of the education consulting company Capitol Advisors Group, said the huge amounts of money raised by each campaign represent a “proxy war” between public education and the charter school movement.
“In an intense election like this, more money will be spent than even the governor’s race,” Gordon said.
Charter schools act independently from a traditional school district, but rely on taxpayer funding and act as a tuition-free alternative to public schools, according to the California Department of Education.
Tuck worked closely with the nonprofit charter Green Dot Public Schools in Los Angeles where eight of the schools he ran were ranked among the best in the nation, according to a U.S. News & World Report.
“California public schools are not working for the vast majority of our kids,” Tuck said. “When you can’t read or write, your future is over before it begins.”
Latino and African American students lag behind their Asian and white classmates in math and English proficiency and California ranks 29th in national graduation rates, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
Matthew Hardy, a spokesperson for the California Federation of Teachers, said teacher unions have deep concerns about charter schools.
The California Teachers Association said California charters lack transparency and accountability as they are operated by groups that are disconnected from the communities they serve.
Hardy said the growth of charters in California affects funding for school districts and Tuck’s supporters view public education “as an untapped market.”
According to Hardy, wealthy individuals see public schools as a profitable business and Tuck’s “market-based” approach is similar to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ stance on privatizing public education.
Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill in September banning for-profit charters in California by July 1, 2019.
According to California Charter Schools Association, California has the most charters in the nation with 1,275 schools statewide.
California is only one of 13 states that elects a state superintendent. The superintendent influences and guides public education, but does not create policy, according to EdSource.