This June, voters may elect a new state superintendent of public instruction (SPI) to oversee California’s public schools, which educate 6.2 million K-12 students. The challenges facing our schools are many: California has nearly 60 percent of its students living in poverty (eligible for free and reduced-cost meals), has 1.3 million English learners, and is 46th in the nation in per-pupil spending. President Trump’s plan to defund public schools by putting federal dollars into vouchers and for-profit charter schools sets the stakes even higher in this election.
CTA recommends Assembly Member Tony Thurmond, former Richmond City Council member and former West Contra Costa Unified school board member. His opponents include Marshall Tuck, former president of Green Dot Public Schools, who received $12 million from charter school groups in the 2014 SPI race he lost narrowly to current Superintendent Tom Torlakson.
We caught up with Thurmond recently, and asked him to share his views on a wide variety of topics for our members. Here’s what he had to say.
How did public education influence your life? It’s been everything for me. My mother, an immigrant, raised four kids alone until she lost her battle with cancer. At age 6, I and one of my brothers left California to live with cousins I’d never met in Philadelphia. We struggled and moved around a lot.
What saved me was having teachers believe in me, support me, and set the bar high for me. I could have easily ended up in California state prison instead of the California State Assembly. I see myself every day in students who face challenges. And like teachers who believed in me, I believe in them. So, I fight to give every student the same opportunity to receive a quality education.
Was there a teacher who made a difference?
I will always remember Mrs. Harrell, my high school math teacher in Philadelphia. I struggled in math. She put in extra time and never gave up on me, helping me be successful. I looked for her on social media but couldn’t find her. But I would love for her to know her investment in me paid off.
How will you fight the federal government’s attack against public education?
President Trump has sent a message: He’d like to take California’s federal dollars for education and repurpose them into voucher programs. That goes against everything we hold dear. I believe pushing back against the Trump agenda starts here in California. California schools are 46th in the nation in per-pupil spending. I can think of no more important job than changing that.
How do we fix the teacher shortage?
We can’t solve the shortage if teachers can’t afford to live in the communities where they work. To provide what’s best for students, educators need stability. I’ve met teachers who are homeless and couch-surfing. I’m introducing Assembly Bill 45 to give school districts money to build affordable teacher housing. Residency and pipeline programs can also attract teachers, including ethnic minorities, to teach hard-to-fill subject areas such as special education, science and math.
We should support teachers instead of blaming them — and give them the compensation, resources and tools necessary for them to succeed. If we make these investments, young people will dream about becoming teachers in communities that are historically underserved, and perhaps even return to their own communities one day to teach and become role models.
You mentioned special education.
Special education in this state and country has been underfunded for a long time. Instead of asking “What’s in the best interest of a student’s IEP or 504 Plan?” the first thing administrators say is that the services requested are too expensive, forcing families to sue the district, which creates higher costs when a district must pay legal fees. We need to do a better job of funding special education. I spent many years as a social worker helping students and adults with developmental disabilities, and I currently serve on the state’s special education advisory committee, which is seeking creative ways to find more funding.
Closing the gap?
Every student can achieve. But we must provide more support to students from disadvantaged backgrounds — enrichment programs, universal preschool, counselors, after-school programs, health care, mental health programs — to address barriers that impede student success. It’s hard to learn when you are homeless and hungry. It’s hard to do well on a standardized test if you have a toothache.
I’m proud to have introduced AB 1014, enacted in 2016, which provides funding to address chronic absenteeism and support community schools offering health, dental and other support services. It allocated $35 million to more than 30 districts just this year. Another bill I introduced resulted in a guarantee that every student who has ever been in foster care has the money to go to college — the Chafee Grant.
I’m convening with stakeholders now about closing the gap. How do we interpret the data? What are the best practices other districts use to help kids? To close the gap, educators, administrators, classified staff, parents and community members must work together, instead of blaming each other.
Can technology help?
Yes! STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) is a great equalizer. There should be maker spaces in every single school. What better way to help to develop critical thinkers than giving our kids the ability to see themselves as inventors and entrepreneurs? Some kids don’t have access to the Internet at school; their only access to Wi-Fi is if a truck pulls up and provides a hot spot. California is the cradle of modern technology, and we can do better. We should offer every K-12 student access to computer science courses. Career technical education helps prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow — and these kids might just come up with the next innovation to save our lives.
The school-to-prison pipeline?
We have a great opportunity to change the pipeline. Unfortunately, we spend so much money on prisons and incarceration and very little on programs like universal preschool to prevent it. I founded a nonprofit for students who have been incarcerated, and I teach a civics course to high school students detained in juvenile camp in Alameda County. My students are honest about the lack of support services upon re-entering the community, which is why we have a high rate of recidivism. AB 1488, a two-year bill I introduced in 2017 based on my students’ observations, would expand wraparound re-entry support services such as housing, substance abuse counseling and career training to help them succeed. I used this as a civics lesson about how a bill becomes law and invited students to the Capitol, so they could understand civic responsibility.
Thoughts on school privatization?
I don’t think education should ever be based on competition. We’ve got for-profit schools traded on the New York Stock Exchange. I think that is a twisted approach. Public education is just that. For that reason, I’m proud to be co-author of legislation that would ban for-profit charter schools in our state. Schools aren’t businesses. They are environments for learning and innovation.
What about bilingual education?
I support bilingual education. We should also be creating more dual-immersion programs to develop the global leaders of tomorrow. In other countries, students are provided the opportunity to learn multiple languages. We need to do more of that here.
Why do parents and community matter so much?
We must make parents and community members our partners when it comes to educating kids. Schools should be at the center of the community and a place where parents feel comfortable and supported, especially if English isn’t their first language. With schools facing so many challenges, the more partners the better. Frankly, it’s an all-hands-on-deck situation. We should all be working together.
You have been recommended by CTA and others.
I am honored to be supported by groups like CTA, the California Federation of Teachers, the California Faculty Association, Equality California (which addresses bullying in schools), and Planned Parenthood (which provides students with accurate sex education and how they can be safe from STDs). I’m supported by a very broad coalition of educators, public officials and legislators, such as current SPI Tom Torlakson, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, Congresswoman Karen Bass in Los Angeles, and Congresswoman Barbara Lee in the Bay Area. I’m very proud of the coalition we have. If we don’t have any movie stars, that’s OK. I want hardworking people who care and believe in public education.
How do you differ from your opponents?
I have a track record as a legislator and public official of bringing dollars to systems that need change, tackling challenges some said were impossible, and working with stakeholders to get the job done. I have relationships with 120 legislators, our governor and communities to promote wide-scale change. I have served on a school board, city council and state Legislature, making things better for students. I have served as a social worker and taught at the university level.
This is not a political decision for me. People ask me, “Why are you running?” I am giving up a so-called safe seat in the Legislature because so much is at stake. For me, it’s all about the kids in California. I’m all in because of them!
A Career of Action and Results
Among Tony Thurmond’s accomplishments:
- As a social worker, worked with disadvantaged and developmentally disabled youths and adults for two decades, and founded nonprofits such as Beyond Emancipation, which provides services to youths leaving the child welfare and juvenile justice systems in Alameda County.
- Passed legislation providing millions of dollars to school districts to keep students in school and out of the criminal justice system.
- Crafted legislation that ensures all youth who have been in foster care have the opportunity to attend college.
- Increased funding for early childhood education programs.
- Current priorities: Expand school-based mental health and social service programs; reduce teacher shortage through affordable teacher housing; provide more money for preschool and after-school programs.
- Current Assembly committee memberships include: Education Committee, overseeing school finance; Human Services Committee, whose jurisdiction includes child welfare services, foster care and child care; three Select Committees: STEM, Career Technical Education, and the Status of Boys and Men of Color.