In nonpartisan race for California superintendent of public instruction, it’s all politics

The Superintendent of Public Instruction is the only impartial statewide office in California, but it seems impossible to separate politics from the race between Democratic incumbent Tony Thurmond and Republican challenger Lance Christensen.

Both do not shy away from intervening in the partisan struggle.

As superintendent, Thurmond, who was elected after one term in the California Convention in 2018, was in step with Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. He has promoted LGBTQ-inclusive books in school libraries while campaigning against them in some Republican-led states. issued a statement in support of abortion rights after the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and began discussions of institutional racism in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd.

Christensen, a director of education and government affairs for the conservative California Policy Center, has railed against Newsom, teachers’ unions, comprehensive sex education, critical race theory and masks in schools during COVID-19. Unlike Thurmond, he opposes a November ballot measure to secure access to abortion in the California constitution.

Christensen, who also has experience at the state Capitol as a Republican legislature staffer, said politics plays no role in the race for state superintendent.

“I’m not running for Republican. It’s not partisan, it all boils down to ideology,” he said. “My ideology is that I just really believe that parents own their children and have full control over them, not some bureaucrat.”

Thurmond disagrees that politics doesn’t matter.

“I think he articulates dangerous messages that would actually have a negative impact on many of our students. We must prevent young people from being consumed by these hateful messages,” Thurmond said of Christensen. “If you attack teachers like he does, attack social groups, how is he going to build a coalition to support the important work that needs to be done?”

For Thurmond, who has endured a turbulent first term as superintendent, Christensen’s policies could work in his favor.

Thurmond has support from the influential California Teachers Association and the California Democratic Party in a state ruled by a like-minded majority. Those endorsements come despite accusations of a toxic workplace and criticism for hiring a friend on the East Coast to head up a high-paying position at the state Department of Education.

Thurmond’s team cited Christensen’s affiliation with the Bradley Impact Fund as one reason he should not be elected. According to his 700 forms, Christensen received $2,050 last year from the conservative organization that has made baseless voter fraud allegations in support of former President Donald Trump.

Christensen said it’s “not relevant at all,” and while he’s open about his conservative views, he laments the focus on his political positions that aren’t directly related to the operation of California’s K-12 schools and the success of their upcoming 6th graders millions of students are connected.

“Donald Trump has nothing to do with what I’m trying to achieve here, but because I have an ‘R’ after my name, they’re going to hit me with that,” Christensen said.

Unlike most states, the Superintendent of Public Instruction in California is elected by the voters and not appointed by the governor.

The superintendent oversees the California Department of Education, which employs more than 2,000 people, making sure schools comply with a number of policies, including how they spend state dollars.

But local school boards and county boards have a lot of influence over what happens in their districts, and in many ways the legislature and state board of education have more power over state education than the board of public education.

The SPI’s greatest power is arguably the pulpit, as it can vie for the ear of the governor and legislature to influence policy and provide guidance to local districts.

If elected in November, Christensen said he would appoint a “chief parent advocate” to influence education policy. He has also vowed to scrutinize the state’s Department of Education dollars to reduce “bureaucratic bloat”; to revise what he calls archaic education law and give even more authority to district superintendents in a state already committed to local control.

If Thurmond is re-elected, he has vowed to ensure that by 2026 every current kindergarten child — more than 450,000 students — can read through third grade. Currently, less than half of California’s third graders read at an acceptable level, according to the latest state test results. Third grade is viewed by educators as a crucial academic marker as students move from learning to read to reading to learn.

Thurmond also has a goal of hiring 10,000 new counselors in schools. As one of his proudest achievements, he cited legislation he sponsored to get funding in the recent state budget for programs focused on mental health workers and cited the need for emotional support for youth.

“The most important thing a state superintendent can do is find ways to work with the governor and the legislature to conserve resources for districts,” he said. “It’s about understanding all aspects of how to run policies and how to generate revenue.”

Christensen sees Thurmond’s past as a lawmaker not as an advantage but as a disadvantage. Parents are tired of the status quo and lifelong politicians, he said.

“They all generally say it’s unacceptable,” Christensen said of parents he met on the campaign trail to discuss the state of public education in California. “[Thurmond] is absolutely ineffective.”

The odds are in Thurmond’s favor. He has 20 times more campaign funding than Christensen, raising $1.7 million in direct donations alone. The California Teachers Association has poured more than $1 million into an independent spending committee for re-election.

And since 2006, not a single Republican has been elected to state office in California.

But tenure also has its pitfalls. Thurmond faces tough questions about declining enrollment, a teacher shortage, alarming standardized test scores and the state’s plans to correct setbacks caused by the pandemic.

“Although I have no direct control over it, I knew from day one that I would be held responsible for all sorts of things that would be out of my control. But that’s okay, I’m very committed to helping young people succeed,” he said. “I don’t spend a lot of time explaining it away. At the end of the day, people have a right to be angry and that’s something we need to be very focused on.”

Christensen believes voters care enough about Thurmond’s record to vote him out, including parents frustrated with the state’s handling of school closures and distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic under his leadership. Thurmond has been criticized for not facing pandemic issues, unlike superintendents in other states.

While Thurmond could have won the race in the June primary if he garnered enough votes, he fell short of the required 50%, securing about 46%. Christensen came in second with nearly 12% of the vote.

This superintendent race pales in comparison to the 2018 election, when Thurmond and his Democratic nominee Marshall Tuck went head-to-head in a tense $60 million contest focused on charter schools.

Like Tuck, Christensen supports charter schools — his kids went to them. Thurmond supported teachers’ unions in their fight against them and sponsored a law signed in 2019 that cracked down on regulations and standards for the non-traditional public schools.

Christensen has repeatedly invited Thurmond to a public debate, but Thurmond has declined those offers.

“He has an incredibly dangerous propaganda message that is harmful. I will not give him any platform to spread this message and hurt our children,” Thurmond said.

The election is on November 8th. In nonpartisan race for California superintendent of public instruction, it’s all politics

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