Illustration by Rioka Hayama
One of the closest elections held this year was for California State Superintendent of Public Instruction. After nearly two weeks of vote-counting, the winner was finally declared to be State Assemblymember Tony Thurmond, who narrowly defeated charter school executive Marshall Tuck. Thurmond represents the 15th Assembly district, which includes Alameda and Contra Costa counties. While Thurmond has been an effective legislator, that may not translate well to the duties of the Superintendent.
The race between Tuck and Thurmond was effectively a proxy war between two powerful special interests: teachers unions, which backed Thurmond; and charter schools, which backed Tuck. Over $50 million were spent on the race, two thirds of it coming from the charter schools which backed Tuck. However, this money was spent largely in vain. The Superintendent has little power to regulate charter schools; that is controlled by the legislature and by the State Board of Education (SBE). Thurmond’s duties will not extend far: he will put in place regulations and laws passed by the legislature and the SBE, but he won’t have much power in writing those regulations. He will have a soapbox to advocate for policy, but almost no power to make policy on his own.
Since the duties of the Superintendent revolve around implementing policy rather than designing it, we should judge candidates on their experience implementing policy rather than their positions, which they will most likely not be able to enact.
Thurmond’s experience in this field is not negligible. He served on the West Contra Costa County School Board for six years, and focused on educational policy during his time in the State Assembly.
Even if the Superintendent did have the power to make policy, Tuck and Thurmond have very few policy differences. Both candidates support giving school districts rather than the state government more control over education. They also support increasing the education budget, and making it harder for teachers to get tenure. Though their goals were similar, Thurmond is not as well suited to achieve them.
Thurmond will likely prove an effective administrator. He will do his duties well, and will try to bring much-needed reforms to the school system, but this does not negate from the fact that he was the wrong choice. His opponent would’ve attempted to implement similar reforms, and with his experience and connections would have been better suited for it.