Linda Irving, who does double duty for Sebastopol Union school district both superintendent and principal, tensed up, winced, and then shrugged her shoulders when she was asked who she’ll vote for in this year’s state superintendent race.
Candidate Marshall Tuck is backed by California’s charter school community, and his opponent, Tony Thurmond, is backed by the state’s teachers’ union. “They are both very passionate and make a lot of promises,” Irving said. “There are a lot of similarities. But both come with their own agendas.”
In just the last two decades, Sebastopol, a tiny district of 500 students swaddled in California’s picturesque wine country, has lost half of its enrollment to local charter schools, Irving said. And, having to annually pay down skyrocketing pension and benefit costs has complicated the monthly negotiations she has with her local teachers’ union, which wants higher pay and smaller class sizes.
For Irving and the thousands of administrators who work in California’s 1,000 school districts, this year’s state superintendent race could be pivotal.
The race has already turned abnormally expensive and politically combative.
California’s midterm elections will usher in a new governor and state superintendent to oversee its public school system, responsible for educating more than 6 million students, or one-tenth of America’s student body. It will also cap eight years of sweeping policy changes in school accountability, finance, and governance that’s taken place under Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.
The state superintendent is charged with overseeing its department of education, interpreting for districts the many laws coming out of the state assembly, and, most crucially, overseeing the execution of the state’s funding formula and accountability system.
Tuck won just 2 percentage points more votes than Thurmond in this year’s primaries.
(Candidates need more than 50 percent to win the seat.) And Tuck, who ran and lost for state chief in 2014, has so far raised $3 million, while Thurmond has raised $2 million, according to California’s secretary of state.
The winner of this year’s race will have a long to-do list once elected in January.
California’s poor students perform worse than their peers in every single state except for Alaska, according to the most recent scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. And the state is suffering from a years-long teacher shortage that’s left hundreds of classrooms overseen by either unqualified or substitute teachers, according to several studies.
That’s despite the fact that California, home of Silicon Valley, has the fifth-largest economy in the world.
That irony is not lost on Thurmond and Tuck, who recently gathered for a debate in the basement of the Sheraton Grand Hotel in downtown Sacramento.
Both Thurmond and Tuck said, if elected, they will use the state superintendent’s position as a bully pulpit to push their own agendas. They both promised to assemble task forces in order to replace the state’s 25-year-old charter law and find a new way to pay down its $100 billion pension debt.
They disagree on several key policy issues, including teacher placement, how to raise more money for the state, and how that money should be spent.
Policy stances aside, what the down-ballot race might come down to, in the end, is name recognition and money.
Over the last 20 years, Thurmond has served as a social worker, school board member, and city council member.
In 2014, he was elected to the state’s general assembly.
“I could’ve ended up in California state prison,” Thurmond said, referring to his poverty-stricken childhood. “Instead, I ended up in California’s state legislature. “
Tuck previously served as the president of Green Dot Public Schools, a national network of charter schools, and was the founding CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, which operates 18 elementary, middle, and high schools serving 15,000 students.
Tuck said he learned the necessary ingredients for improving schools by running his own set of charter schools in Los Angeles.
“We need to use every tool in the toolkit to provide our children with a quality education,” said Tuck.
A Clunky Start
The state has been one of the most aggressive in pushing control down to districts.
In 2013, California instituted a new funding formula, which, by slashing away dozens of spending requirements, provides more freedom for local school board members and district officials to decide how to spend their money.
The state’s new accountability system combines test scores with nine other performance categories in order to judge schools.
Both the funding formula and accountability system remove from the state department the burden of coming up with ways to spend and improve the state’s schools. But they require the state to collect more data and report them to the public in a way that is actually useful for a wide array of constituents.
Those efforts have gotten off to a clunky start.
A recent report said many county and district officials are still confused about how some pots of money should be spent and understand little about the funding formula’s goals in the area of spending equity.
The unveiling of the state’s report card, called the California Dashboard, has been roundly criticized for being opaque, confusing, and, according to the Los Angeles Times editorial board, a “color-in-the-blank chart.”
At last week’s state superintendent forum, sponsored by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, both candidates urged the need for change.
Tuck and Thurmond agreed on many initiatives, including expanding the state’s pre-K system and its student wraparound services, providing more money to its schools, and streamlining the state’s professional development for teachers.
But toward the end of the forum, sharp policy differences began to emerge.
Tuck said he wants to change the state’s teacher pay structure in order to better incentivize more-experienced and better-qualified teachers to work at the worst-performing schools.
“We need teachers and principals who will stay in high-poverty communities,” Tuck said.
Thurmond said that effort would amount to grading teachers based on test scores, a charge Tuck quickly denied.
“If we create a differentiated pay scale, we’ll encourage teachers to teach to the test,” Thurmond said. “Teachers are more than a test score.”
And Thurmond accused Tuck and his supporters of not supporting prior propositions on the state ballot to increase school funding.
Tuck denied that accusation.
Meanwhile, Irving, the Sebastopol superintendent, is bracing for whatever additional changes could trickle down from the state in the coming years.
During a two-hour discussion in the district’s administration building, which houses four employees, she described a grueling daily regimen that she says boils down to working with teachers and students as a principal during the day and filling out paperwork and managing the district budget as the superintendent at night.
She fumbled through the state’s new online dashboard, which indicates that the district needs to work on improving its English-language learners’ test scores, and showed off a big stack of papers that she said amounts to the district’s most recent application for state funds she sent off to the state department.
In order to stem the loss of students, she’s spent $5,000 to redesign the district’s website, handed out brochures at the independent local bookstores and coffee shops that dot this town, and started tweeting.
She hopes the next state superintendent will push for fairer expectations for comparison between traditional public schools and charter schools, urge the state to shoulder more of its pension burden, and find new ways to staff schools with more counselors.
“I would hope,” she said, “that the next (state) superintendent would spend some time in districts to see how hard everybody is working and what our day-to-day reality is.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 05, 2018 edition of Education Week as State Chief Race in Calif. Proving Costly, Contentious