Proposed constitutional amendment would make state superintendent of public instruction an appointed position

February 28, 2023

An almost empty Assembly gallery during in Sacramento, Calif., on Monday, Aug. 31. Lawmakers had until midnight to finish all business before the end of the two-year legislative session.

Tony Thurmond could be California’s last elected superintendent of public instruction if a constitutional amendment introduced Monday is approved.

ACA-9, introduced by Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, would give the governor the power to appoint the superintendent of public instruction, although it would require confirmation by the Assembly, Senate and the Senate Committee on Rules.

“It’s time to reconsider the structure of the California superintendent of public instruction and state governance of public education,” McCarty said. “ACA-9 is a good-government proposal that modernizes a relic of the past and better aligns California education leadership.”

McCarty called current Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond an effective voice for the state’s public schools.

“However, public schools deserve more than a voice. ACA-9 would allow the next governor to appoint a new SPI to work in tandem and coordinate public education matters more effectively at the state level,” he said.

If the amendment passes both the Assembly and Senate by a two-thirds vote, and California voters approve it on a statewide ballot next year, there would be no election for the job of superintendent of public instruction in 2026.

The superintendent of public instruction is currently a nonpartisan position limited to two four-year terms, according to the California Constitution. The amendment repeals those provisions, allowing the governor to decide who will serve and for how long.

The superintendent of public instruction position, which pays about $190,000 a year, was established as part of the state constitution in 1849. It is one of eight state offices on the ballot every four years. The person in that seat heads the 2,500-employee California Department of Education but lacks the authority to set state or local education policy. Instead, the superintendent administers the regulations, laws and mandates the State Board of Education and the Legislature hand down.

The constitutional amendment would take away the voters’ right to make the decision about who serves as the state superintendent of public instruction, Thurmond said. McCarty should define how the change would benefit the people of California, especially the students, he said.

Thurmond said he and Gov. Gavin Newsom have worked closely together, especially on common visions such as universal school meals and community schools.

“I think it’s good for someone who is an advocate to work for schools,” he said, adding that many department initiatives, like directly recruiting teachers for schools, wouldn’t have happened if he had been appointed.

Thurmond has publicly acknowledged the weakness and constraints of the superintendent’s position in the past. He says the Legislature should consider strengthening the position instead of making it an appointed seat.

“At the end of the day, this is something that voters should decide,” he said. “… We shouldn’t take steps backward. We should empower voters and get more resources to the schools, not weaken or minimize them.”

Thurmond has been at the center of a few controversies during his two terms as head of the California Department of Education. 

In 2021, Politico reported that department employees alleged that a toxic work environment created by Thurmond led to high staff turnover. Later that year Politico reported that Thurmond hired a friend living in Philadelphia to become the department’s first superintendent of equity. Daniel Lee was earning $180,000 in that position while running a business in Philadelphia. He resigned his post shortly after the article was published.

Thurmond easily won re-election against conservative parent activist Lance Christensen last year.

The position of superintendent of public instruction is appointed in 38 states. In 18 of those states, the governor appoints the position and in 18 states it is appointed by the state Board of Education. In two states, the superintendent of public instruction is appointed by the state Board of Regents.

Megan Bacigalupi, executive director of CA Parent Power, a statewide parent advocacy group, was glad to hear the constitutional amendment was introduced.

“It makes sense for that position to be someone who has been appointed by the governor and is pushing forward the governor’s education agenda, and is not someone that is butting heads and isn’t in lockstep with the governor,” she said. 

The job has sometimes been filled by people who used it as a political steppingstone instead of by people with a proven track record in education or education advocacy, she said.

A 2022 poll by PACE found that voters don’t know much about the position of superintendent of public instruction or how to evaluate those who hold it, said Heather Hough, executive director of the PACE research center. The poll found that 44% of voters didn’t know how well Tony Thurmond was performing as superintendent of public instruction, while 33% approved of his performance.

The job of the superintendent of public instruction is primarily to run California’s Department of Education, which has historically been underfunded and is weak compared with other states when it comes to supporting curriculum, professional development and preparation for teachers, and educational quality across the state, Hough said.

There have been numerous attempts since the early 1900s to make the job of California superintendent of public instruction an appointed one, Hough said. Removing voting rights is generally unpopular with voters.

The power of the superintendent was trimmed in the early 1990s when then-Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, took then-State Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig, a Democrat, to court. The State Board of Education, which is appointed by the governor, has more policymaking powers than the superintendent, who sits on the board as a nonvoting member.

Relations were particularly chilly between the administration of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and State Superintendent Jack O’Connell, a former Democratic state senator, but ties have been closer between the last two state superintendents and governors, Tom Torlakson and Jerry Brown, and Thurmond and Gavin Newsom, respectively.

EdSource editor-at-large John Fensterwald contributed to this report.


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