If you pay attention to the overheated advertisements for the race for the state superintendent of public instruction, you’ll surely believe that the future of California’s education system is at stake. Nearly $50 million has been raised by candidates and independent committees to, in part, fund TV ads blasting one candidate as a failed school-board member and the other as a tool of the Trump administration.
Both candidates are Democrats but one, Assemblyman Tony Thurmond of Richmond, is backed by the California Teachers’ Association and the Democratic Party. The other, Marshall Tuck, had been the CEO of former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s school-reform effort and a charter-school president. He is supported by some of the same wealthy charter-school and education-reform advocates who had backed Villaraigosa’s failed gubernatorial bid.
It looks like a classic battle between the status quo and a reform-minded outsider. It’s also something of a replay from 2014, when current Superintendent Tom Torlakson, the union guy, edged out Tuck, the charter guy, in a $30-million race. The polls this year, however, show Tuck with a decent lead. The outcome is far from certain, however. There’s a large undecided vote given that most people probably have no idea what the superintendent actually does. And who can blame them?
“It’s mind-blowing that people are spending over $50 million for our next superintendent of public instruction,” said Michael MeCey, a public-relations consultant for some California charter schools. “What does he do? It really begs the question: Why do we even have the position?” (MeCey jokes that his other clients — California broadcasters — are among the few people happy about the race given the windfall in campaign ads.)
It’s reflective of the state of affairs in California statewide elections that one of the most contentious, highest-spending races is for an office that doesn’t have much power to shape public policy. It’s not the only example in this election, either. The four hotly contested races for the Board of Equalization, a tax board, are largely meaningless after lawmakers last year stripped the agency of most of its power and employees. The BOE races are mostly about who gets a perch while eyeing other offices. The superintendent election is about who gets a bully pulpit.
The position was created by the 1849 constitution. Technically the head of the Department of Education, the superintendent is responsible for implementing the policies established by the state Board of Education, which is appointed by the governor. (Previous governors also appointed a secretary of education, which made the post largely redundant.) As the voting guide explains, the superintendent also is only an “ex-officio” member of governing boards and provides policy “direction” to local school districts.
The Legislative Analyst’s Office noted in a 2014 report that all the diffused responsibilities in the educational system make it “challenging” to have much accountability. EdSource’s Jon Fensterwald pointed to that report, but summarized the situation best on his own: The superintendent’s “most significant role isn’t defined: the power of persuasion as the highest ranking K-12 official. State superintendents take positions on bills; draw attention to issues … and shape conversations.” Yep, it’s a high-priced, low-powered position.
I’m more sympathetic to Tuck’s appeal than to Thurmond’s. California’s union-dominated public-school system ranges from disappointing to an embarrassment, depending on which particular school system one focuses upon. The teachers union clings desperately to its antiquated industrial model of education. Thanks to the union’s power, public-school teachers are rewarded based on seniority, which means that, say, a low-energy older teacher waiting for retirement at a staid suburban school gets paid more than an energetic young person with a challenging position in a poor area.
The last person hired is the first person let go during budget cutbacks (“last in, first out,” or LIFO). There are public-school “rubber rooms,” where teachers deemed unfit for the classroom are paid to sit in a room and do nothing while their case is adjudicated through a long process. That highlights the near impossibility of firing bad teachers. Testimony in the Los Angeles County Vergara case argued that there are likely 2,750 to 8,250 “grossly ineffective” teachers in California classrooms. And the unions continue to oppose plans to reward teachers with merit pay.
So, of course, it’s better to have a superintendent who has advocated educational choice rather than one who is closely allied with the unions. Surprisingly, Thurmond and Tuck have significant areas of agreement. But, again, the winner has little power to implement their proposals, ranging from “free” preschool to more after-school programs. It’s a nice bully pulpit, but it hardly seems like one that’s worth $50 million. Think about all the charter schools that could be started or teachers that could be hired with that kind of cash. It’s yet another example of how we’ve all become too focused on elections as the be-all and end-all of social change.