Thurmond promises to lift all state’s schools
by Ryan McDonald
On his first day as a board member of the West Contra Costa School District, Tony Thurmond was told he needed to close 10 schools.
It was 2008, around the time Wall Street banker Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy, the financial system plunged into crisis, and the budgets of government agencies around the country were pushed to the brink by shriveled tax bases. At the time Thurmond, who currently serves in the California State Assembly, was fresh from a stint as a city councilmember in the San Francisco Bay Area city of Richmond. He knew council members in each of the five cities in the district, and he huddled them together to see what they could do.
“We pulled it through, and got the money to keep almost half of those schools open,” Thurmond said in an interview.
The story is a telling one for Thurmond in the race for State Superintendent of Public Instruction in this Tuesday’s election. It reveals his belief in the importance of keeping neighborhood schools open at a time when some segments of the nation’s education reform community are more willing to shutter campuses. It touches on his ongoing concern about the state’s scheme for financing public education, which, despite significant reforms in Gov. Jerry Brown’s recent terms, continues to base funding around 2008 levels. And it highlights his willingness to embrace the term “politician” even as it is regularly lobbed at him as an insult in opposition advertisements.
The state superintendent of public instruction oversees California’s Department of Education, whose annual budget is equal to the gross domestic product of Bulgaria, and the education of California’s 6.3 million kindergartens through 12th-grade public school students. It is technically a nonpartisan office but has become arguably this year’s closest and most fiercely fought-over statewide position. And although both Thurmond and his opponent, school executive Marshall Tuck, both are Democrats, the two are backed by very different constituencies.
California has become a battleground in a national debate over education reform, with the proliferation of charter schools, which are generally nonunion, the dominant issue. While the California Teachers Association has long been a force in Sacramento, charter school backers are increasingly pouring money into state offices, including in 2014, when Tuck unsuccessfully ran for state superintendent against incumbent Tom Torlakson, who is termed out this year. More recently, charter school advocates have squared off against teachers unions in local school board elections: the contest for two seats on the Los Angeles Unified School District in May 2017 became what the Los Angeles Times called “the most expensive school board election in U.S. history.” Outside campaign committees affiliated with charter advocates outspent those linked to unions roughly $10 million to $5 million, and both of their favored candidates prevailed.
The CTA has endorsed Thurmond in the Superintendent’s race, and teachers organizations in local school districts are following suit. Monica Joyce, a teacher at Tulita Elementary School and the president of the Redondo Beach Teachers Association, said that she and her fellow teachers were worried about how some of Tuck’s supporters have close ties to both charter schools and for-profit educational companies.
“We are very concerned about Marshall Tuck’s record in running charter schools. We believe our focus needs to be on strengthening public schools, not charter schools. In the South Bay, we have great public schools and we believe Tony is the leader who will continue to support the hard work of our teachers and staff,” Joyce said in an email.
So far, financial contributions in the race have been surprising less for their direction than for the amount. According to the California Secretary of State’s Office, independent expenditure committees have backed Thurmond to the tune of $12.5 million, while Tuck has been the beneficiary of $28.8 million in outside spending. Some $50 million in total has been raised for the race.
James Meade teaches art at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School and is the president of the Palos Verdes Unified chapter of South Bay United Teachers. He said that although the chapter has not taken a formal vote on whom to support, he and most of the other teachers he has spoken with are supporting Thurmond. Meade said that he is aware of the political dynamics surrounding the race, and he resents the way educators are generically lumped in as a “special interest.”
“Most of us have children who go to public schools. We live here and we work here,” Meade said.
Thurmond is quick to say that while he welcomes the support of teachers, he has an independent streak that he would maintain if elected to higher office. Early in his time on the Richmond Council, he opposed a project at the town’s Chevron Refinery out of concerns over its impact on the environment, even though it was heavily supported by the area’s building trades unions. More recently, he bucked teachers unions with a vote on a bill to start the school day later, citing scientific research that adolescents perform better when they are able to sleep later.
“I’m going to always be independent, and do what’s best for kids,” Thurmond said.
Thurmond’s convictions come from personal experience. His background provides an example of how large, oft-maligned urban school districts can still be engines of opportunity.
His father was a soldier deployed to the Vietnam War when he was young, and Thurmond did not see him again for decades. After his mother, a Panamanian immigrant, died when he was 6, he moved from San Jose and was sent to live with cousins in Philadelphia. And although he grew up in a low-income neighborhood — he recalled eating “so much government cheese that I thought USDA was a brand name” — he found that government programs intended to help people like him worked pretty much as they were supposed to, especially the public school system.
“I didn’t end up in the state prison system; I ended up in the State Assembly. My life was different because of education,” he said.
The struggles of childhood poverty did not leave Thurmond as he progressed through college and politics. Last year he squeezed in teaching a civics class to high schoolers at a camp in the state’s juvenile delinquency system, along with his Assembly commitments. And the areas he has represented have for decades suffered from some of California’s worst poverty and crime rates, statistics that are frequently aired in opposition-funded advertisements. (One, which aired on radio stations carrying the Dodgers-Red Sox World Series games, depicts a fictional conversation between two people about whom to vote for in the superintendent race; a woman brings up negative anecdotes about Thurmond “the politician,” and the struggles of schools in West Contra Costa Unified.)
Thurmond gets emotional when the ads come up, less, he says, at being criticized than at the spectacle of wealthy donors fueling commercials lambasting cities and districts that are overwhelmingly poor and minority-led. Tuck has attracted donations from some of the state’s wealthiest residents, including philanthropist Eli Broad and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. And many of his strongest backers are based in the South Bay, including Palos Verdes resident Melanie Lundquist, and Manhattan Beach resident Bill Bloomfield, who has given more to Tuck and associated committees than anyone else in California. The challenges kids and residents mired in poverty face will likely take a long time to resolve, and he wonders whether “billionaires” giving to his opponent truly understand that.
“We rebuilt almost every school in that district. We reduced suspensions 27 percent in one year. That is a district that still has a way to go. But there have been social and economic challenges facing this district for decades. The work is not done, but this is a district moving in the right direction,” Thurmond said of his time in Contra Costa.
Although Thurmond has focused his career on the plight of the less fortunate, he said he recognizes how California’s structure for funding education creates challenges for wealthy districts like those in the South Bay. Under the Local Control Funding Formula, which the Legislature passed in Brown’s first term, funds are redirected to districts with higher percentages of students meeting certain criteria, including participation in the free-or-reduced-price lunch program. While the additional money has helped poorer districts expand offerings and classroom resources, districts such as those in Manhattan and Hermosa Beach regularly complain that they rank among the lowest-funded in the state.
Thurmond said that, if elected, his priority would be finding a larger and more secure source of funding for all districts. California currently sits near the bottom among the 50 U.S. states in per-pupil funding. And because of Proposition 13, California is more reliant than other states on the income tax to fund operations and education, meaning that revenues fluctuate wildly with the stock market, as happened during the Great Recession. Thurmond said that he would support a ballot initiative in 2020 that would create a “split role” that would tax commercial property held by large corporations differently than residential property and that held by small businesses.
Thurmond estimates that it would raise an additional $5 billion to $6 billion for the state’s schools. It’s an idea that has been tossed around for years, only to be abandoned and deemed politically implausible.
“For finance, to create permanent revenue to improve schools, you have to have political acumen,” Thurmond said.