The two candidates for State Superintendent of Public Instruction agree that the time has come to review California’s quarter-century-old charter school law, while disagreeing over how best to handle the impact of charter school growth on the financial health of school districts.
Reprising themes they have emphasized on the campaign trail for months, Marshall Tuck and Tony Thurmond agreed that the state must substantially increase education spending and do more to support African-American and Latino students during an hour-long forum Friday in Sacramento hosted by the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonprofit research and policy organization.
The forum was moderated by PPIC president Mark Baldassare.
Both Tuck and Thurmond also said they will enthusiastically support an initiative expected to be on the November 2020 ballot to overhaul California’s landmark tax law Proposition 13 and raise taxes on commercial property. The initiative’s backers estimate it would provide $4.5 billion in new funding for schools.
Tuck edged out Thurmond by less than two percentage points in a four-person primary on June 5 for the non-partisan post overseeing the nation’s largest public school system. Tuck received 37 percent of the vote and Thurmond received 35.6. Both are Democrats, but because neither candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote, they are now competing with each other in the Nov. 6 runoff election.
Regardless of who wins, it appears that the next state superintendent will push for a revision of the state’s charter law, which passed in 1992. There were 1,275 charter schools in California last school year, though fewer new charter schools have been opened in recent years.
While Tuck and Thurmond said they support increased transparency for charter schools and oversight to ensure the schools are effective, they each voiced their own vision for the value of charter schools in California.
“Our job as a state is to provide every single child with a quality public school,” said Tuck, former CEO of Green Dot Public Schools, a charter school network in Los Angeles. “I think we should use every single tool we have in the toolkit to do that.”
Thurmond, a two-term Democratic legislator from Richmond, called for changing “this whole narrative of charter-versus-non-charter.”
“Let’s talk about what’s best for all of our kids, and when we see great things happening in a charter let’s replicate that in a school that’s not a charter,” Thurmond said.
They appeared to disagree over how to ensure that the growth of charter schools does not harm school districts. Several districts, such as Oakland Unified, have complained that charter schools are a financial drain because they draw away students and the state money that goes with them, leaving less funding for the students who attend traditional schools.
“We have to ask ourselves, what is the tipping point?” Thurmond said, referring to the point at which a district feels considerable financial pain from a growing number of charter schools. “How many new schools can we handle before we undermine the education of students in the K-12 education system?”
Thurmond has indicated he would consider a “pause” on new charter schools, though he has stopped short of calling for an outright moratorium.
Tuck has said he supports changes to ensure state funding for school districts in areas with large numbers of charter schools stays flat for a time to give those districts an opportunity to adjust to lower enrollment. But he has rejected the idea of stopping any new charter schools from opening.
“This is an area of difference,” Tuck said of a potential charter school moratorium. “I do believe that non-profit charters, that serve particularly low-income communities that the current system has failed for decades – that those parents deserve an additional shot.”
To pay for the additional K-12 and higher education spending both men said is necessary, each backed an effort to raise commercial and industrial taxes that have been limited since the 1970s by Proposition 13.
The proposal – known as a “split roll” because it would leave intact the law’s tax limits for homeowners and residential properties – would generate an estimated $11.4 billion worth of new tax revenue, of which about $4.5 billion would go to K-12 schools and community colleges.
“That’s something I’ll be pushing for,” Tuck said.
“I’m going to lead that campaign,” Thurmond said.
But Tuck also sought to portray himself as a candidate of change who would push for new strategies along with increased funding, such as giving higher salaries to teachers and administrators who work in high-poverty schools to attract experienced educators. Drawing on his experience in Los Angeles, Tuck said he was an educator who led turnaround efforts at troubled schools, and would do the same with the state’s education system as a whole.
Asked to assign California’s education system a letter grade, Tuck gave it a D. Thurmond declined to use a grade but said it was “not good enough.”
“If you want real change in our public schools then I am definitely the candidate,” Tuck said. “If you’re comfortable with the current direction and think that more dollars alone solves the problem, then I’m not. But the status quo isn’t working.”
Thurmond argued that the state superintendent must be able to work with teachers, district administrators and lawmakers to improve education. His experience as a social worker, school board member and legislator has better prepared him to be an effective superintendent, Thurmond said. He noted he is risking his seat in the state Assembly to run for superintendent, but said he wanted to do so because “education can save a life – it saved mine.”