High profile electoral contests may grab more attention, but one race could actually determine whether or not public schools survive in our state. That’s the race for State Superintendent of Public Instruction.
It’s hard to believe that public education, a taken-for-granted cornerstone of our democracy, could be lost. But there are plenty examples of countries where schools were sold out to the highest bidder, such as Argentina and the Philippines. The national efforts to deal a huge blow to public education and the public employees unions are already well underway—with the Supreme Court approving Janus, and Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos promising a $20 billion school voucher program and approving massive cuts to after-school programs and teacher training programs.
But in California, you may ask?
Yes, in California, a combination of public education bashing in the media for decades and schools that were deprived of adequate funds has set the stage for a charter school movement to pour money into elections and acquire more schools. In Los Angeles, this funding from corporate charter school operators unseated incumbents supported by teachers and unions—creating a pro-charter, pro-voucher majority on the Los Angeles School Board.
There are two types of charter schools. Some are non-profit, indeed some, but very few, are actually started by groups of parents and teachers. But many are operated by for-profit corporation chains. When these charters take over a school, union contracts are suspended. An emphasis on “individualized” technical education can become an excuse for less instructors or people in any role actually interacting with students. Charter schools are exempt from any accountability measures that public schools must comply with, such as tests, yet they receive the same public dollars from the state budget per student. Charter schools can also choose which students they accept and keep. In effect, they take those dollars from public schools by promising better results—promises that rarely pan out, and are hard to prove—without any oversight.
Public education, advocated long ago by unions as a solution to ending child labor and to developing an informed citizenry, is very attractive to forces that would transform it into a private enterprise because it is worth so much money. It costs roughly $76.6 billion per year to educate the 6.5 million public school students of California.
To know what’s going on in the race for State Superintendent, follow the money, as in campaign donations. State Assemblymember Tony Thurmond, himself a product of public schools, is endorsed by the two teachers’ unions—the California Federation of Teachers and the California Teachers’ Association—as well as the California Nurses Association, and many other unions. These endorsements speak to his longtime relationship and support for working people. He is also supported by several Native American tribes. Thurmond’s opponent, Marshall Tuck, is a former CEO of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, and former President of the Green Dot Public Schools, a charter school franchise. Tuck is funded by those who champion charter school corporations both in and outside the state, such as the Walton Family foundation, the Kochs, Eli Broad, Reed Hastings, the Fishers, and many other wealthy individuals who seek to privatize public education. These individuals and corporations are pouring millions into his campaign.
Tony Thurmond was raised by a cousin who took him in when his mother died when he was six years old; he credits her with making sure he got a great public education. After completing two Master’s degrees, he went on to be a social worker and an Adult Education instructor for 12 years. He then was elected to and served on Richmond’s City Council and the Contra Costa Unified School District Board. Thurmond currently serves in the State Assembly, where he chairs the Labor and Employment Committee. In this role, he has passed legislation to provide dollars to school districts, and has fought for money to ensure that foster youth can attend colleges, increased funding for early childhood programs, and worked to shift money from the criminal justice system into early education and after school programs.
Thurmond’s goals as State Education Superintendent include keeping schools safe from gun violence, prioritizing funding, and transparency in education funding. He wants to ensure accountability for charter schools, and strengthen inclusivity in public schools, renewing the commitment to special education and the goal of educating every student.
He envisions creating a 21st Century curriculum that will prepare students for the jobs of the future, and prioritizing early education and after school programs to close the achievement gap. His goal is to make college and career pathways accessible and affordable for every type of student, and he plans to highlight apprenticeship programs and adult education. Thurmond wants to empower teachers to instill critical thinking and creativity in students—not just teach to the test, as was encouraged in the recent past.
Make no mistake, the stakes are high in this race. Tuck came out ahead in the primary election, and charter school and voucher advocates are thrilled. If we want to save public schools for our children and grandchildren, we must get the word out, donate, and tell our neighbors, friends and family to vote for Tony Thurmond. Don’t let the billionaires privatize and destroy public education in our state. Keep our public schools free, funded and public. Vote for Tony Thurmond for State Superintendent of Public Instruction.
– Melinda Dart is President of San Mateo County Central Labor Council, a recently retired teacher after 30 years in public schools, and a member of the American Federation of Teachers Local 3267