#EDlection2018: California State Superintendent Candidate Tony Thurmond On High-Quality Schools, Early Education, And Help For English Learners
#EDlection2018: California State Superintendent Candidate Tony Thurmond on High-Quality Schools, Early Education, and Help for English Learners
Four candidates are vying for the position of California state superintendent of public instruction in the upcoming primary election. Only the top two vote getters will proceed to the general election in November.
One of the candidates, Tony Thurmond, is a 49-year-old Democrat currently serving his second term as the representative of Richmond in the state Assembly. Thurmond has an interesting background, being born in Ford Ord, Monterey and raised in Philadelphia by a cousin after his immigrant mother passed away when he was just six years old. He holds dual master’s degrees in law and social policy and social work from Bryn Mawr College, having graduated from Temple University.
Thurmond has prior experience in public service, having served on the Richmond City Council from 2005 to 2008 and the West Contra Costa Unified school board from 2008 to 2012.
In an interview with LA School Report, Thurmond discussed several important topics, including high-quality schools, underperforming schools, the California dashboard, parent engagement, and more. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
When asked about his definition of a high-quality school and what made his own education high-quality, Thurmond emphasized the importance of teachers providing both rigor and support. Despite facing many challenges in his upbringing, the support and high expectations from his teachers played a crucial role in his success as a student. Growing up in a low-income household with an immigrant mother and a father he only met at a later age, Thurmond easily could have fallen through the cracks. However, he attributes his success to the public school system that provided him with the necessary support and dedicated teachers who went above and beyond to ensure his progress. The bar was set high, and with the support of his teachers, family, and mentors, Thurmond was able to thrive.
Thurmond expressed deep concerns about the current teacher shortage and the frequent turnover of teachers in many school districts. He believes that well-prepared and well-trained teachers are crucial for high-performing schools. In order to address this issue, Thurmond has introduced bills that aim to provide scholarships for those who aspire to become teachers. Additionally, he has proposed a teacher housing bill, acknowledging that one of the main reasons for the high turnover is the inability of teachers to afford housing in the districts where they work. Thurmond is actively seeking creative solutions to tackle these shortages.
Thurmond believes that high-performing schools challenge students to think critically and prepare them for the future. He stresses the importance of early education and more preschool programs, as the achievement gap begins before elementary school. He advocates for increased investment in preschool education. Thurmond also highlights the need to prepare students for technology-based jobs and has introduced a package of bills to provide more funding for STEM and computer science education, as well as professional development opportunities for educators interested in technology. He also emphasizes the importance of bilingual education and dual language instruction, enabling students to become global leaders of tomorrow. In order to create high-performing schools, Thurmond believes that parent involvement is crucial. Schools should view parents and families as partners rather than challenges, recognizing that student success is directly linked to parental involvement. Thurmond encourages whole-family engagement, aiming to create welcoming schools that provide resources and support for students and their families. He believes that students should have a voice and be actively involved in shaping their school experiences.
Overall, Thurmond’s vision for high-quality schools includes rigorous and supportive teaching, well-prepared teachers, early education, technology-focused programs, bilingual education, and strong parent engagement. Through his proposed legislation and advocacy, Thurmond aims to address the challenges and improve the quality of education in California.
Were your mother and guardians able to choose where you were educated? What options did they have?
Initially, no. We resided in San Jose until I reached the age of six. Following the passing of my mother, I relocated to Philadelphia to a working-class neighborhood that offered a mix of good and not-so-good schools. However, my cousin, who raised me, decided to enroll me in a program that allowed me to be transported to a school across town, which was considered academically advanced, similar to a magnet school. This school demonstrated better overall performance, so I attended it. Essentially, I was bused to school for more than half of my educational journey.
Therefore, I would say that there were some choices available, but it is important to remember that my family – my cousin and my mother – were the first in our family to attend college. Consequently, I witnessed my cousin working as a nurse’s aide while attending night classes at a community college. She faced significant challenges. However, she instilled in me the belief that further education would improve my life. I believe it was this message and belief in the power of education that allowed me to overcome our humble beginnings. We relied on various assistance programs – from food stamps to government programs – and our entire neighborhood was part of the free and reduced lunch program. I continued to benefit from these programs throughout my high school years. Hence, I attribute my ability to receive an excellent education and improve my life to a combination of dedicated teachers, the belief in education, support from mentors, and public programs.
The California School Dashboard: Did you grasp it immediately? How long did it take you to comprehend it? Did you need assistance?
Honestly, I understood it when I first read it. However, someone posed a question to me that I found fair. They asked if I had actually applied it to a school to see how it compares to other schools. This person was being critical, but their criticism was valid. So, let me provide you with both the positives and the negatives.
Overall, I appreciate what the dashboard signifies and represents, which is the acknowledgement that students are more than just test scores. It considers various aspects, such as campus activities, attendance, performance of English language learners, graduation rates, and parent engagement. I find this approach valuable.
However, as the criticism was pointed out to me, I realized that as a tool, it may not be as user-friendly as it could be, particularly when it comes to simply understanding how a school ranks or performs. I think this is a valid observation, and there is room for adjustments and improvements to make the dashboard more accessible. Frankly, if it doesn’t cater to families, students, and those evaluating our educational system, then it needs to be modified. I am open to collaborating with educational stakeholders, family groups, parents, and educators to explore ways to refine and adapt it.
Student achievement in the state has either remained stagnant or worsened for many marginalized groups. What changes would you make at the state level, and what new approaches would you take that haven’t been attempted before?
Indeed, I do believe that achievement levels have stagnated. However, there are a few areas that show promise. We must collaborate with districts that have made improvements and highlight the best practices that have proven successful. This is something I have been working on during my campaign. I have organized roundtable discussions on closing the achievement gap, inviting districts to share their most effective strategies. Furthermore, we need to enhance our interpretation of the data. Why does the gap persist despite the efforts made by numerous districts over the years? We must invest time and effort in understanding the underlying causes behind the data and utilize this new information to inform or replace our strategies, refocusing them to achieve better results.
I believe that we need to focus more on early education as it plays a fundamental role in reducing and eliminating the achievement gap. Literacy is another important area that requires attention, and a major literacy campaign is necessary. Additionally, we should implement intervention programs like the Freedom School program, which has proven to help students improve their reading level in just a few weeks. Our efforts should center around both intervention and prevention. I am particularly concerned about how the achievement gap and other issues in our schools contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline. It is disheartening that we invest more money in prisons than in early education. To address this, I have introduced a bill that proposes a tax on private prisons in order to generate more funds for preschool programs.
In our state, the absenteeism gap is a significant problem that needs to be addressed. There are many school districts where the rate of absenteeism is alarmingly high, sometimes reaching 10 percent or more. This has a profound impact on our children and their ability to learn how to read. The majority of absent students are in kindergarten through third grade, and we know that if a child does not learn to read by third grade, it can hinder their overall academic development, leading to higher dropout rates and potentially involvement in the criminal justice system.
Therefore, I propose accelerating programs from the Department of Education that specifically target chronic absenteeism. By doing so, we can assist students in achieving important milestones such as learning how to read, while also mitigating the financial losses schools experience due to decreased attendance. The governor has already signed one of my bills into law, allocating $35 million to address chronic absenteeism, including a grant of $1.7 million for the Los Angeles Unified School District.
As superintendent, I strongly believe that the Department of Education should prioritize listening to the needs and concerns of our constituents, including students, families, and districts. They are reaching out for assistance, and it is our responsibility to provide support. Given that we rank 46th in the nation for pupil spending, we must work towards changing this narrative. We need to strive towards being the leading state in terms of funding and investment in our students. Investing more in STEM education, career and technical education (CTE), and ensuring that all our teachers are well-trained to meet new standards are crucial steps. This way, we can adequately prepare our students to be critical thinkers rather than solely focusing on test memorization.
California leads the nation in the number of English learners, yet only 9 percent of them have demonstrated proficiency on state tests. While English learners have received additional funding under the Local Control Funding Formula, the achievement gap persists, with over a quarter of all California students classified as English learners. How would you address this issue and assure parents that their children will succeed?
Addressing this issue is of utmost importance to me, and I have already taken steps towards this goal during my time in the legislature. Just last year, I successfully secured funding to support bilingual education and hire more educators. However, we need to accelerate these efforts. I have introduced a bill this year that emphasizes dual language instruction in the early grades to continue supporting our students. Furthermore, we must invest in cross-curriculum learning to enhance English learners’ understanding of subjects like math. I recently attended an inspiring training session where I learned about using arts as a tool to teach math and science. It is essential for us to find ways to provide additional support. It’s worth noting that we are currently facing a shortage of bilingual educators, but we have made progress by allocating $5 million last year to increase their numbers in the state. My legislation this year aims to further expand these efforts in order to close the achievement gap for English learners.
Parents who discover that their child’s school is among the state’s lowest performers may wonder what assistance they can expect for their child during their time there.
I am open to various opportunities and ideas on how to provide support to schools. To effectively assist students in these schools, we need the best teachers, top-notch training, adequate resources, and strong community engagement. I am fully committed to this work.
Over the next four years, school districts may face the risk of bankruptcy due to pension and healthcare liabilities. As a superintendent, it is crucial to take action to prevent this and prepare parents and teachers for the challenges ahead.
To begin with, I advocate for legislation that permits school boards to retain a larger portion of their reserve funds to mitigate financial difficulties during difficult times. Before my tenure, this reserve limit was set at 3 percent, but we have now increased it to 10 percent. Clearly, we must address the rising costs that school districts face, including pension costs.
In my campaign, I aim to tackle these issues by assembling a group of educators, business leaders, government officials, and pension experts. Together, we will formulate a plan to address pension liabilities and collaborate with county and local districts to secure funding. This endeavor requires the participation of everyone involved. While these conversations may be challenging, I am bringing in experts who possess knowledge in pension matters to ensure effective management of these obligations. We strive to reach a point where district funds are not solely allocated to pensions or debt.
In my opinion, one aspect of this equation is providing more resources to our schools this year. I am supporting legislation to expand funding and advocating for the identification of long-term, permanent funding solutions to cover various educational costs, including pensions, program costs, and overall educational needs.
If you were to ask about one innovative or transformative initiative that I would prioritize during my tenure, I would highlight our work on AB 1014. This grant is focused on helping school districts address chronic absenteeism. Since the 2008 recession, many districts have had to reduce their outreach staff specialized in tackling this issue. That is why I authored this bill, recognizing that chronic absenteeism is a problem we can solve, and doing so can be financially sustainable. By actively reducing absenteeism rates, not only are we helping our students, but we are also providing additional funds to districts. These funds can then be invested in general funds to support student programs and educational initiatives. Even a 1 percent increase in funding can mean millions of dollars for many districts. Therefore, initiatives like the reducing-chronic-absenteeism grant I proposed this year are essential. Additionally, I have introduced legislation that will allocate more resources directly to support students in schools. It is important to acknowledge that the L.A. Unified district alone has approximately 17,000 homeless students.
We must find ways to support homeless students as it is challenging for them to learn under such circumstances. This involves providing more housing support to these families and allocating additional resources within schools. My objective is to introduce more psychologists, nurses, and social workers who can work directly on school campuses. Moreover, we should establish more school-based health centers to address social issues that impact students’ well-being.
The fact that students are homeless or have experienced trauma doesn’t imply that they cannot learn, because they can. This belief is founded on my own experience and the experiences of many other students with whom I have worked. It means we must allocate more resources directly to support these students. I will strive to foster innovation in how we address health and social programs and effectively reduce chronic absenteeism. As I mentioned, the tax on private prisons is a groundbreaking initiative.
Currently, the state spends a significant amount, around $6 billion, on companies profiting from incarceration, while early education receives minimal funding. In the absence of stable funding for early education, we need to explore new revenue sources. Recognizing the link between criminalization and the lack of early education, we propose taxing private prisons to generate funds for preschool and after-school programs in the community. Similarly, the teacher housing bill aims to provide affordable housing for teachers and other essential staff. For instance, in L.A. Unified, we have engaged in discussions with district staff who informed us about the difficulties they face in building affordable housing and retaining high-quality teachers. The federal funding supporting these programs does not adequately cater to the needs of the workforce in the middle income bracket.
Let’s discuss the cutting-edge developments in the field of STEM. The president of our country has allocated a significant amount of $200 million to promote STEM education nationwide. In line with this, my current proposal seeks to secure $200 million solely for the state of California. The funds aim to foster the expansion of STEM education, provide professional development opportunities for teachers, and increase access to computer science. Projected estimates suggest that there will be a demand for one and a half million jobs in the technology sector in the coming years. However, we anticipate that only half the necessary number of applicants will be available unless we allocate essential resources and reconsider our educational approach. It is imperative that we incorporate more computer science into our curriculum and secure adequate funding to provide necessary equipment to students. To address these concerns, I have introduced a bill calling for increased professional development in computer science, an abundance of instructional materials, and a higher number of technology educators.
Now, I am curious about the innovations occurring in California or other states that you believe should be implemented in schools across the board.
In my opinion, there is a considerable amount of innovation in how we support our English learners. Nevertheless, I believe that this area has been underfunded for an extended period. Nonetheless, the investments made in this sector are yielding positive outcomes. The framework established by the Local Control Funding Formula, which focuses on addressing educational inequities faced by students from disadvantaged backgrounds, has proven to be highly effective.
Although we still face significant challenges, the current funding we receive falls short of what is necessary. Our per-pupil funding ranking of 46th in the nation is insufficient. However, the equity-focused framework we have implemented is crucial. It is worth noting that in other states where teachers have gone on strike, they have accused their school systems of completely defunding education. While we have much work to do here in California, our overarching framework prioritizes equity, providing us with an opportunity for further improvement.
My vision is to expand the notion of equity while simultaneously enhancing the rigor of education. We have already seen great innovation in teaching math and math concepts, and we should strive to apply the same rigor to all our students. By doing so, we can create stronger pathways for college and career readiness, ensuring that every student is well-prepared for higher education. Additionally, we should ensure that all students are aware of opportunities such as internships, apprenticeships, trade work, and vocational education, which can form alternative college and career pathways.
Should parents have the ability to vote on school-related contracts negotiated by the state and school districts?
In my view, it is crucial that parents have a say in these negotiations. However, I must admit that I am not entirely familiar with any existing frameworks where individual parents directly vote on contracts. My experience as a board member has primarily involved closed-door meetings with district staff, attorneys, and union representatives. I am eager to learn about any examples you may be aware of. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that parents should have the opportunity to provide input and oversight in all decisions made by school districts.
None of the candidates for state superintendent have prior experience running a large school system. How does your experience prepare you for this role, and what steps have you taken to bridge any knowledge gaps?
It all depends on how one perceives the position. While the superintendent of public instruction does not bear direct responsibility for any specific school district, it is crucial to foster relationships with the legislature, governor, and 58 county superintendents. As a legislator, I have a proven track record of collaborating with 120 legislators in our state, as well as with our governor. Through the budgeting process, I have consistently delivered positive outcomes for school districts by securing additional funding. I have successfully obtained resources, such as a billion dollars for Medi-Cal health care programs, which will benefit our schools through school-based health centers. Moreover, I have secured $300 million to support individuals with developmental disabilities, including many of California’s youngest residents. My accomplishments also include passing legislation that expands the screening of the reduced lunch program, benefitting an additional 400,000 students across California. These experiences demonstrate my ability to get things done and effectively advocate for policies that positively impact education.
I possess eleven years of elected experience, which includes serving as a school board member in charge of a budget exceeding $400 million, and as a city council member overseeing a budget of over $300 million. I will utilize my extensive experience to effectively manage public funds, ensure public trust, and advocate for the needs of our students. Additionally, I have worked as an instructor and teacher for students in the criminal justice system, teaching high school classes on civics and social work. I have also taught career training and life skills in schools and have been a strong advocate. I will continue to fulfill these roles and collaborate closely with districts throughout the state.
If I am elected, I may find myself working with a governor whose goals or political supporters differ from mine. In such a scenario, I will prioritize the goals that are most important to me and implement strategies for compromise and collaboration. I am confident in my ability to work with any governor, as I have previously collaborated with all the Democratic gubernatorial candidates either in the legislature or in other capacities. The key to compromise is maintaining an open dialogue and acknowledging that disagreements are inevitable. However, it is essential to find common ground and achieve shared objectives, always with the best interests of the students in mind. Throughout my career in elected government, my approach has always been to make decisions that make my own children, and all children, proud. If a decision does not align with this principle, I cannot support it. Ultimately, the impact on students is the ultimate measure of my support for any issue.
I have confidence in my ability to collaborate effectively with governors, as they play a crucial role in determining whether we achieve a universal preschool program. My top priorities, when working with the governor and the legislature, include establishing a universal preschool program, increasing per-pupil funding, addressing the teacher shortage, tackling the achievement gap, and ensuring that our education system prepares students for future job opportunities. To achieve these priorities, I will rely on the relationships I have built with the current legislature and governors.
Is there anything else you would like me to address?
I understand that this work is not easy, and there will always be differing opinions on the best strategies for our children. However, I refuse to accept the notion that we cannot support every student’s success, regardless of their circumstances. I firmly believe that public education is paramount to our society and ensuring equal opportunities for all. I am committed to working for the benefit of all six million students and their families, to ensure they receive a quality education. I am thrilled at the opportunity to serve the people of California in this new capacity.
I often get asked why I have chosen this path. I tell them that this decision was not driven by politics, but rather by my heart. I recognize that education played a pivotal role in saving my own life, and I firmly believe that every child deserves a similar opportunity. Based on my own experiences, I know that if I can succeed, then all black children can succeed as well. However, we must be prepared to make difficult choices and fight tirelessly to ensure their success.