It would be a stunning upheaval if Tony Thurmond were to lose his re-election bid for California’s Superintendent of Public Instruction on Nov. 8. But it is not an impossibility.
Even with the incumbent advantage, serious funding and support from the state’s Democratic establishment, he was unable to muster a majority in the June primary. Thurmond now faces a challenger Lance Ray Christensen, vice president of educational policy and government relations at the conservative think tank California Policy Center. (State superintendent of instruction is a nonpartisan position.)
We made no secret of our various disappointments at Thurmond, who we supported in 2018. He’s undertaken laudable efforts, like helping secure student computers during the pandemic and pushing for legislation that will make transitional kindergarten universal – the kinds of things that call for more spending at a time when the state is on edge. But on more pressing and controversial issues, he is too often silent.
Yes, it is true that Thurmond’s office, though elected, wields little power to change policy. But he has the ability to use his position to advocate for parents and students, which he hasn’t done to the level we expected. Nor has he been the education leader we needed during the COVID-19 pandemic. His office has been plagued by complaints from toxic leadership and questionable hiring practices. He launched several workgroups on topics such as literacy and access to technology, and held town halls and roundtables, but took too little or misguided action.
Thurmond made some good shots. He launched a major initiative to improve the teaching of reading in primary grades. This is the right priority; state students read poorly, and repair that could make a huge difference in their academic success. But the welfare ambition for every public school student to achieve grade level reading by 2026 is not going to happen. It did not set specific, achievable goals and measures for marked improvement. This is an example of how his ideas have not been developed enough to be applied in the classroom. The next two months would be the perfect time for him to refine his thinking on this and other topics and give voters a reason to vote. for him rather than versus Christensen.
Here’s the reality: Thurmond may have a weak record, but Christensen’s agenda is worse. He supports vouchers for private schools, which would seriously harm public education, and allows staff-led prayer in schools, such as in locker rooms before games, including prayers from specific religions. This is outright proselytism; even the conservative majority on the US Supreme Court might not go that far. He also supports the recent Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v Wade. Reproductive rights may not be an important part of education, but the superintendent has some regulatory latitude in sex education and a soapbox to use.
Christensen is a back-to-basics thinker at a time when schools are modernizing their course offerings to be more engaging and immediately useful to students. Christensen’s positions are too far removed from the values of most California voters to make him a worthy candidate.
However, not all of Christensen’s ideas about work are bad. He would appoint a high-level parent liaison for the state, whose job it is to understand at the ground level how schools work and don’t work for families.
If Thurmond retains his post in November, he should consider adopting this idea. Take the reading initiative as an example of how this could help. Thurmond’s first major meeting was with district superintendents, some of whom pushed for the adoption of problematic reading materials or failed to provide proper teacher training. They are not the ones who can tell Thurmond what is wrong with teaching reading; many of them are part of the problem. Why not ask parents for their perspective on why children struggle?
But at least Thurmond has a nascent reading plan. Christensen wants to give more control to local districts. If it worked, students would already be reading like champions.
Thurmond should be given the chance to complete his reading plan with a second term. If he is to be remembered as the superintendent who accomplished something great for California schools, he needs to approach his second term with more action and planning.
The state is significantly better off with Thurmond than with Christensen. But we hope Thurmond will use a second term to become the Superintendent of Public Instruction who will make an educational difference.
Read more endorsements at: latimes.com/endorsements.