Tony Thurmond wants students to know about his life. He knows adversity.
Thurmond, 49, a candidate for a 4-year-term as state superintendent of public instruction, is a two-term Democratic assemblyman in the San Francisco Bay Area, a former school board member and city councilman from Richmond with a career in social work and nonprofit management.
Not on his resume, though, is a childhood full of tragedy. It’s a subject he brings up to introduce himself on the campaign — not just to cite a personal success, which it is, but as a way to credit the adults in his life, especially teachers, who raised his aspirations and helped him along the way. For a candidate running for an office with limited power to make policy but with a big megaphone to influence opinion, Thurmond’s story is compelling.
“I could have ended up in a California state prison; instead I ended up in the California State Assembly. We could create other stories like that; all 6 million of our students deserve a great education,” he said in an interview.
By running for the statewide job — which pays $158,775 — he is giving up his political office. “In spite of being in a very safe seat in the Legislature … I thought about the political legacy I wanted to leave and the chance to make education better. I made the decision to risk it all to help our kids. Our kids are risking a lot and so I am. I’m all in it for them.”
If elected to the highest elective voice on education, Thurmond said he will advocate strongly for increased school funding and requirements that districts publicly detail how they are spending the funds; more support for bilingual education, an expansion of science and math education known as STEM and computer science programs in all school districts, more money for preschool and new programs to address the “crisis” of the state’s teacher shortage (see his policy plan).
Thurmond was born at Fort Ord in Monterey to a mother who emigrated from Panama and an emotionally troubled Vietnam War veteran from Flint, Mich., who was estranged from the family. He and his three brothers and sisters lived in San Jose until he was 6. When his mother died of cancer, he and his younger brother moved in with a cousin they had never met in Philadelphia.
“I look back on my own life all the time and I try to figure out what was it that helped me. I had caring adults in my life. My teachers always had high expectations of me,” he said. “And when I struggled in a subject like 9th-grade math, Mrs. Harrell came to my rescue and she put in extra time to make sure that I would get it.”
The family was “on every public assistance program you can think of,” he said. But “people around me were all talking about going to college. And you know I didn’t know what that really meant. But when they said they were going to college, I did, too.”
Thurmond became a student leader at Temple University in Philadelphia, a 35,000-student, state-related research university where he was elected student president along with a slate of candidates who pressured the university to divest from South Africa, which was still under Apartheid at the time. He went on to Bryn Mawr College, just outside Philadelphia, where he earned master’s degrees in social work and in law and social policy.
He returned to the Bay Area in the late 1990s to reconnect with two brothers living in San Jose. “I saw them every weekend,” he said. “I had good memories of my early years.”
Thurmond worked for two decades for nonprofits to help foster youths, incarcerated teenagers, students in alternative schools and individuals with disabilities. He was executive director of San Francisco Promise, a mentoring program in San Francisco started by the United Way of the Bay Area; founding director of Beyond Emancipation, a housing program in Alameda County for youths transitioning from foster care; and Marin County manager at the Golden Gate Regional Center for children with disabilities.
For about five years he was a senior director for community programs and then for government and community relations for Lincoln, a 135-year-old multi-service center for children based in Oakland. He set up a program providing clinical services for youths whose parents were summoned to truancy court. Some of them were victims of neglect and abuse. He started CEO Youth, which re-engaged students alienated from school through paid internships and leadership training.
“He understands young people like few do and what they have been through,” said Chris Stoner-Mertz, CEO of Lincoln. “He talks to them peer to peer, and they really see him as a role model. He convinces them they have the ability to do amazing things.”
From 2005 to 2008 he served one term on the Richmond City Council, then was defeated in a race for the Assembly in 2008. He was elected to the board of the West Contra Costa Unified School District in 2008 during the recession, when $3 million in budget cuts threatened to shutter 10 schools. He helped the district save five schools from closing by persuading five cities served by the district to provide money, he said. He established the district’s Youth Commission and focused on efforts to reduce suspensions, he said.
Thurmond was elected in 2014 to his first term in the overwhelmingly Democratic Assembly District 15, including parts of Oakland, Richmond and Berkeley, and was re-elected in 2016. He chairs the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee and serves on the Education, Health and Human Services committees, as well as select committees on STEM, Career Technical Education and the Status of Black Men and Boys.
He also has made time as a legislator to stay involved with at-risk youths. Over the past year, through Lincoln, he taught civics and life skills, with one-on-one counseling, three times each week at Camp Sweeney, Alameda County’s youth detention center. “They’re getting a diploma in situations where they are detained; aside from that they’re like any other young people: they’re smart; they’re charming; they cut up. But they’re curious. They want to learn,” he said.
As part of the program, he asked his students to help him write legislation to provide comprehensive health and social services for kids and then to go to Sacramento with him to present the bill. “They had good ideas,” he said. “I was hoping the experience of sitting on a dais in the Assembly would help them to think differently about what their life possibilities could be.”
Thurmond has amassed a lot of endorsements, including from more than 50 members of the state Assembly and Senate, the Legislative Latino Caucus and the Legislative Black Caucus, 21 county superintendents and more than two dozen unions, including the California Teachers Association (CTA) and the California Federation of Teachers. Unions have contributed $3.1 million to support his candidacy, including $2.1 million from the CTA.
Thurmond said he appreciated the support of teachers but insisted, “I’m not here to carry their water or anybody’s water.” He pointed to his support of bills to require an early morning start to middle school and high school and to expand resource officers on school campuses, which the CTA opposed.
Last July, though, he jumped into the fray on the CTA’s behalf when he introduced its bill that would have extended teacher probation an additional year, from two years to three, with new due process rights for probationary teachers. The maneuver was a late attempt to derail a more strongly worded bill by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, which already had passed the Assembly, and force her to negotiate with the CTA. Surprised by the tactic, Weber withdrew her bill.
Thurmond told EdSource he apologized to Weber for the strategy and offered to negotiate a compromise. Feeling that Thurmond had acted “in bad faith,” Weber, a retired California State University professor and prominent African-American legislator, declined to take up his offer, said Weber spokesman Joe Kocurek. Weber has endorsed Thurmond’s opponent, Marshall Tuck, whose qualifications and values are more aligned with her own outlook on education, he said.
Thurmond, who is divorced, has two teenage daughters who attend public schools.
Thurmond points to legislation he has championed to illustrate the priorities he’d pursue as state superintendent. A 17-page action plan on his campaign website includes these goals:
Increasing funding transparency: Review Local Control Funding Formula funding to ensure it is spent efficiently and effectively and ensure LCFF funding data is available online for public viewing;
Increasing school funding: Work with legislators to lower the voter threshold for passing local parcel taxes from two-thirds majority to 55 percent and work to bring California to the top ten states in per-pupil funding by 2022;
Supporting English learners and bilingual education: Invest in language immersion programs and create hiring incentives to recruit high-quality language education teachers;
Addressing the teacher shortage: Support efforts to make college cheaper and more accessible for aspiring teachers, streamline the teacher credentialing process and work with legislators to provide access to affordable housing to educators in communities where they teach.
“It’s important to elect a superintendent who has a track record of working with the Legislature, working with the governor and getting things done,” he said.
Thurmond cites these education bills among his accomplishments:
- AB 2506 (2016): Makes Chafee grants, the only source of college funding dedicated to foster youths, an ongoing entitlement.
- AB 261 (2017): Requires that school districts appoint a student representative to their school board as voting members.
- AB 1014 (2016): Provides $28 million in grants to districts to reduce truancy and chronic absenteeism, including money to support restorative justice and community partnerships.
- AB 1502 (2017): Expands the number of children eligible for free and reduced-price school lunches by automatically certifying them if their families receive other forms of state and federal low-income assistance, such as CalWORKS.
Bills pending this year:
- AB 2788: Would provide funding to districts for pre-development costs of rental housing for income-eligible school employees. It’s similar to legislation that Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed earlier this year, according to a bill analysis.
- AB 2303: Would impose a 10 percent tax on for-profit prison contracts, with money to be used to expand preschool and after-school programs.
- AB 2186: Would provide a $200 million grant program for professional development for STEM educators, computer science education and public-private partnerships for STEM opportunities for students.