Photo courtesy of Lance Christensen campaign
Lance Christensen, center, answers questions from Los Angeles radio AM 870 hosts Jennifer Horn and Larry Marino during a live broadcast broadcast in a Fullerton restaurant in early October.
Note: EdSource extended the same invitation to State Superintendent Tony Thurmond for an interview on Zoom during a two-week period in late September and early October. His campaign said it would not be possible.

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If he were elected state superintendent, Lance Christensen would hire a parent advocate as deputy superintendent as his first act, advocate for a school choice initiative that he helped draft and continue to criticize the California Teachers Association, which he says “has owned the superintendent of the public instruction for generations.”

In other words, he‘d be a very different state superintendent.

Christensen, 45, will square off with the incumbent, Tony Thurmond on Nov. 8. He was runner-up, with only 12% of the vote in the June primary to Thurmond’s 46%, but, with more than half of the total votes, he and others collectively forced a runoff by denying Thurmond a majority of the vote.

Along with pay of $190,000, the job hands the state superintendent of public instruction a big mic on education issues and a big responsibility: running the California Department of Education, with 1,500 employees tasked with administering whatever regulations, laws and mandates the State Board of Education and the Legislature hand down.

The state superintendent doesn’t set policy but can lobby for it in the Legislature and with the governor. Christensen is not new to education policy. He currently works as vice president of education policy and government relations for the California Policy Center, an Orange County-based conservative think tank.

For five years, he was chief of staff for state Sen. John Moorlach, an Orange County Republican, when Moorlach was the vice chair of the subcommittee on education spending. “I got a firsthand look at every single dollar that went through the state budget process,” he said. As an assistant budget analyst for the state Department of Finance before that, he oversaw funding for juvenile detention centers.

With only $129,000 in contributions, Christensen is being outraised about 30-to-1 since Jan. 1, between the $615,000 Thurmond has raised and $2.8 million in independent expenditures for Thurmond from public employee unions, mainly the California Teachers Association.

Christensen is counting on a surprise showing at the polls by disgruntled parents who share his frustration over extended school closings during the pandemic, support his ideas for parent empowerment, including state-funded tuition to private schools, and oppose what they perceive are activist teachings on race and gender.

The fix, Christensen said in an interview, would start with hiring “a chief parent advocate as my deputy superintendent, somebody who’d be a liaison with parents who feel really frustrated and left out of the whole process. Most parents are the last to be consulted on issues of discipline, school safety curricula.”

Parents can speak out at school board meetings and serve on school site councils. But, Christensen said that’s not enough. Christensen said he too has been a school volunteer for his five children. The oldest graduated from high school in San Juan Unified last year, and the others attend public schools in rural Wheatland in Yuba County. He was on his district’s oversight committee for finances and transportation facilities issues and vice president of a booster club.

But there’s a “disconnect,” he said, “when you have a lot of participation at the local level, and then the superintendent or the school board says, ‘Well, we’re sorry. The state won’t allow us to do X, Y or Z.’ I think if there’s a conduit to the superintendent through a parent advocate, those kinds of lines can be broken to make sure that the voices are heard.”

“On most school boards, I don’t think the trustees fully understand or grasp how much authority they have. They’re quick to say, ‘Hey, we would do this, but for Sacramento,’” he said.  “So I’m saying get a lot of those restrictions out of the way.”

And what if the Legislature created a new program or mandate? “Then that’s fine. But it doesn’t require thousands of employees to do that,” he said.

Christensen said he would create a “kids-first audit” of the state education budget, the Department of Education and the state education code to determine how kids’ interests are being served. “All three are wrought with bloated bureaucracies with programs that were built decades ago that are just simply not workable anymore,” he said.

Christensen sounded like former Gov. Jerry Brown a decade ago when Brown called for adopting the Local Control Funding Formula. “I would like to see as much of that decision-making down at the lower level where they can be held responsible and accountable for actions they make,” Christensen said.

Local control was the principle behind the adoption of the funding formula in 2013, but Christensen said it hasn’t worked as well in practice. “If you talk to superintendents, which I have, they get really frustrated about their reporting requirements and the increased requirements that continue to come from the Legislature.”

Budget language authorizing $4.4 billion to convert thousands of low-income schools into community schools over the next five years requires parent involvement in all important school decisions. Schools could open parent and community volunteer centers, student health and wellness clinics, or after-school or parent education programs, if they choose.

Christensen said he has “major concerns” with the community schools idea which he labeled as “mission creep.” 

“Taking responsibility over every aspect of the child’s life away from their parent is problematic. I understand there are some communities where it’s difficult to find health care or to find the kind of mental health facilities. I live in a rural community,” he said. “I don’t know that it needs to be the school’s job. Our kids can’t read. So why are we having all these other programs to the mix?”

Christensen said the extended school closures during Covid epitomize where adult interests took priority over kids’ welfare. California was one of the last states to reopen most schools; the cost in learning and in students’ mental health was high, he said.

He pointed to his son, who was denied a high school life from freshman to senior year. “Shame on us. We didn’t allow these kids to have the kind of experiences that could have been done safely like a lot of states did,” he said.

What was missing was an independent authority to recognize the impact of school closures on students and determine how to protect our students and state, “but also not lose kids to anxiety, depression and suicide.”

Looking ahead to a future surge of Covid, he said, “There were a lot of unknowns in 2020, but we’ve learned a lot since. It’s time to stop pushing a lot of the fear narrative and let parents know that their kids are safe when they go to school.”

California should copy the best practices of other states, he said. “Shutting down schools and locking kids behind a Zoom screen is probably the last thing we should ever do again.”

Other issues

Racial justice: Conservatives nationwide have turned “critical race theory,” a legal analysis of how laws and regulations have perpetuated discrimination, into a shorthand for opposing negative critiques of American history and discussions of ongoing racial injustice.

Christensen made a distinction. “I am not opposed to teaching warts, scars and bruises of history. Our country and California has been involved in a lot of atrocious things, whether it’s stealing land from the local people, slavery and indentured servitude of the Chinese in California or putting Japanese in concentration camps.”

“But when we teach these things in school, it has to be taught in perspective and context,” he said. “When teachers feel like they’ve got to be advocates and activists instead, that’s where we have a problem.”

His oldest son’s English teacher, he claimed, had a line in his syllabus that said, “My top priority is to make you social justice warriors.”

“His business is to make sure that he’s teaching critical thinking, writing, analysis. The examples could go on and on and on.”

Teacher shortage: Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature have allotted several billion dollars to recruit and retain teachers through subsidizing their credentials and establishing teacher residencies in which aspiring teachers would be mentored for a year.

As an alternative, Christen said he sees no reason the multiyear credentialing process couldn’t be shortened, especially for retirees and experts in science, technology, engineering, math and the arts who want to become teachers.

Develop a small program that takes a few weeks to develop lesson plans in curricula and send them off to the world,” he said. The current process “weeds out a lot of really good people that want a faster process.”

California Teachers Association: The CTA has spent tens of millions of dollars campaigning for Thurmond and three previous state superintendents, all previously state legislators. Christensen says the union is too powerful.

“The CTA and their affiliates get every year to lobby against the issues of parents and children. They have a job to do —  to protect their interest. I get that, but it’s almost like the parasite has eaten the host,” he said.

“I think we should provide (teachers) with the protections they deserve,” he said. The unions shouldn’t use children as “hostages or pawns, and or as negotiating tools” when they want greater salaries and less time for classroom instruction, he said.

“Most teachers are wonderful human beings who just want to teach kids.,” he said. “But the teachers union seems to protect the worst, the loudest and the angriest teachers. It’s very difficult for a teacher to be fired, especially those who do grievous things.”

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  1. Kimbly Arnold 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    Thank for this informative video. As a Democrat and black woman, my children are grown but my granddaughter’s education is watered down. No matter how hard I try to educate her according to grade level, there never seems to an educational level of cognitive improvement. I believe voting for you will make a huge difference for every child and parent desire to have educated children.

  2. Karla Orosco 1 month ago1 month ago

    I have taught for 30 years in CA public schools in one of the poorest counties and am a proud CTA leader who has mentored lots of teachers over the years. I am so frustrated with continuing narrative that “The Union” is the enemy of parents and schools. This candidate is again talking about firing teachers instead of supporting them. Teachers are happy to meet with parents and most fully communicate what is happening in … Read More

    I have taught for 30 years in CA public schools in one of the poorest counties and am a proud CTA leader who has mentored lots of teachers over the years. I am so frustrated with continuing narrative that “The Union” is the enemy of parents and schools.

    This candidate is again talking about firing teachers instead of supporting them. Teachers are happy to meet with parents and most fully communicate what is happening in classrooms and welcome visitors. Candidates like this are dangerous and will continue the narrative that public schools are failing and pull public funds from them.

    Public Schools are in crisis for lots of reasons beyond our control but this candidate’s criticisms are not solutions our schools and communities. Tony Thurmond isn’t perfect and has had to change his ways but he is an advocate for all communities and public education. Lots of new promising programs are in place for community schools, getting more counselors, teacher recruitment & retention, and helping students who are very challenging overall post pandemic lockdown.

    If on TikTok, I highly suggest videos by @stephenjowens_. He is a public education policy analyst in GA and explains all the problems with parent choice advocates and polices.

  3. Lisa Disbrow 1 month ago1 month ago

    I recently retired from public education because I was being expected to mask 5 year olds while teaching them to learn phonics, ABC sequencing and develop oral language skills. And I was told along with the rest of our staff that if I would just sit with my conscience I would realize what a racist I truly am. No way!!! I oppose dividing people based on skin color. I support personal responsibility for your actions. … Read More

    I recently retired from public education because I was being expected to mask 5 year olds while teaching them to learn phonics, ABC sequencing and develop oral language skills.

    And I was told along with the rest of our staff that if I would just sit with my conscience I would realize what a racist I truly am.

    No way!!! I oppose dividing people based on skin color. I support personal responsibility for your actions. Canceling people because they have different beliefs does no one any good.

    I like the idea that CA could raise our literacy scores like Mississippi did.
    Literacy is the key for every child’s access to learning and advancement. A bilingual teacher of 34 years.

    Tony Thurmond only does what the teachers union tells him to do. Many teachers are broken-hearted their profession has left literacy, math skills, facts and even spelling behind.

    Restore respect for learning now!!!

  4. Kim 1 month ago1 month ago

    It all sounds good and yet the horror stories regarding conservatives goes on. I consider myself a moderate person and believe children should know their past history no matter how ugly it is. This critical race theory has never been taught in elementary or high-school. It is the new extreme conservatives' way of using racial indifference. I remember my schooling well & being a Navy brat I moved from East, South to West. I can … Read More

    It all sounds good and yet the horror stories regarding conservatives goes on. I consider myself a moderate person and believe children should know their past history no matter how ugly it is. This critical race theory has never been taught in elementary or high-school. It is the new extreme conservatives’ way of using racial indifference. I remember my schooling well & being a Navy brat I moved from East, South to West. I can recall when in South the teachings of civil war are taught differently.

    I believe there are too many prejudices in our world today, period. Therefore the idea that you can keep racist people out of schools is most likely impossible, so in certain areas your ideas could be a bad idea also as to involving parents to run or make decisions on important things. The children of today are quite mature, intelligent and probably more capable than the parents. Get help to the poor children who lack the capacity to learn or get help. Then you will be helping parents, communities, and children. Teach them truth, respect, responsibilities along with their history, reading and math.

  5. Nicole Amaral 1 month ago1 month ago

    I’m definitely voting for him! Thanks for the article.

  6. Jacob Salomon 1 month ago1 month ago

    He sounds excellent. California school lockdowns we’re purely political and unscientific. Critical Race Theory is unscientific victim and endless grievance mongering. Parents should be involved in their childrens’ curriculum. It’s the parents property taxes that fund education.

  7. Amy 1 month ago1 month ago

    How refreshing would that be? Someone who focuses on education!

  8. Brenda Lebsack- PE Teacher 1 month ago1 month ago

    As a teacher of 30 years and a Calif NEA State Delegate, you have my vote Lance!

    I love his quote about Community Schools. After all, if our current system is not meeting goals on literacy, then why are we diverting our focus in so many other areas? That’s like a Bakery that starts selling burgers because their cakes have low Yelp ratings. Mr Christensen will put parents back in the driver’s seat of education.

  9. Araceli Orozco 1 month ago1 month ago

    Yes totally agree with previous comments. I have been a regular vocal parent for almost 30 years. I've been advocating for students and parents in committees and board meetings and nothing ever changes why because board members are put in by unions. Unions put lots of money in to these schools board campaigns – something that makes it almost impossible for a regular parent like my self, that has kids and grandchildren in … Read More

    Yes totally agree with previous comments. I have been a regular vocal parent for almost 30 years. I’ve been advocating for students and parents in committees and board meetings and nothing ever changes why because board members are put in by unions. Unions put lots of money in to these schools board campaigns – something that makes it almost impossible for a regular parent like my self, that has kids and grandchildren in the district have a fair chance. Thank God I have a supportive husband that is working over time to fund my campaign. So yes we need to put our kids first and yes we need parent voice.

  10. SH 1 month ago1 month ago

    I’m afraid the perspective is skewed. Sure upper middle class parents can advocate for their kids. But what about all the rest who are doing the best they can just to get their kids to school? Relying on parents to fix it won’t work for everyone. LC could step outside his social demographic and take a look at how the other 3/4 lives…

  11. Jim 1 month ago1 month ago

    Sounds like a change for the better. Torlakson was owned by the CTA and Thurmond just likes to hide out and collect a check. I will say that Thurmond is not as venal as Torlakson was and seemed quite sincere when I spoke to him.

    I suspect one of the causes of the teacher shortage is the CTA’s doling out all the money to senior teachers and shorting more junior teachers.

    Replies

    • Charmen 1 month ago1 month ago

      Actually, CTA is not in charge of salaries or "doling out" money to teachers. If a school district and the district teacher's union agree to a raise, the entire certificated staff receives it across the board. But, as a teacher, money is one reason some are leaving the profession - for the level of higher education and training we are expected to have, most teachers can earn more and have greater respect in almost any … Read More

      Actually, CTA is not in charge of salaries or “doling out” money to teachers. If a school district and the district teacher’s union agree to a raise, the entire certificated staff receives it across the board. But, as a teacher, money is one reason some are leaving the profession – for the level of higher education and training we are expected to have, most teachers can earn more and have greater respect in almost any other industry.

  12. Charmen Goehring 1 month ago1 month ago

    I am not against all of his ideas however, he is not being truthful about the school shutdown during Covid. I work in his eldest son's district and for him to say his son didn't get a high school life from freshman year to senior year, is inaccurate. Our school sites were all 100% open by April 2021, some, including mine, were open in November 2020. If his student missed more than a year on … Read More

    I am not against all of his ideas however, he is not being truthful about the school shutdown during Covid. I work in his eldest son’s district and for him to say his son didn’t get a high school life from freshman year to senior year, is inaccurate. Our school sites were all 100% open by April 2021, some, including mine, were open in November 2020. If his student missed more than a year on campus, it is because he chose to keep him home.

  13. Dennis Kelly 1 month ago1 month ago

    Curious that Mr. Christen focuses on getting rid of teachers instead of supporting teachers to make them even better.

    And that old bogeyman of the unfireable monster teacher! If Mr. Christen actually knows of such beasts, then it is his responsibility to join with the professional educators who want to work among the best and brightest peers and use the existing processes to show Mr. Christensen’s monsters the way out.

  14. Marita 1 month ago1 month ago

    I’m voting for LC, but I’m afraid that thanks to all of our state’s low-information voters we will be stuck with another 4 years of Tony “under my watch math was declared racist” Thurmond.

  15. Rewgolfer@gmail.com 1 month ago1 month ago

    Another article in the Ed Source issue says California test scores K thr 12 are in steep decline. If incumbent Thurmond were doing a good job wouldn’t the test scores be going up? Clearly Christensen is the reform candidate. His views that major reforms are needed and his belief that the K thru 12 teachers union has too much clout and influence in Sacramento, to the detriment of students, is completely correct.