What Does the Superintendent of Public Instruction Do?

by Jeff Camp | September 27, 2018 | 2 Comments
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Two Strong Candidates Vie for California's Top Education Job

In November, California voters will choose either Tony Thurmond or Marshall Tuck to serve as the next Superintendent of Public Instruction (SPI). Both are thoughtful leaders who have spent years working to improving the lives of children, but in very different ways.

Both are strong candidates. Here's how they differ.

Election campaigns can be brutal and shallow, but for at least a year both candidates have been taking the high road. Both clearly want the job, and each believes he is the choice for it. Neither candidate appears to believe that his opponent is a fool, a tool or a devil. Their numerous public debates and joint appearances have been cordial and informative. (Here are just five of them: 1 2 3 4 5) Even when interviewed separately (see the end of this post) they keep their messages positive. Both candidates emphasize many of the same priorities, including how to address California's persistently low funding for public education.

With luck, this collegiality will survive the election. Both candidates clearly feel called to the work of making government work in the interest of children. It seems likely that one way or another they will be working together for quite some time.

What is the Superintendent of Public Instruction (SPI)?

The office of Superintendent of Public Instruction is a complex non-partisan role. The position was created in 1849 as part of California's first Constitution (which, like Ed100, was written in both English and Spanish). Similar to the office of Attorney General or Treasurer, voters in California elect the state superintendent directly. This independence is rare: in most states the governor or the state board of education appoints the top education official.

Narrow Power, and a Bully Pulpit

The core role of the SPI is operational leadership and administration of the California Department of Education (CDE). In effect, the SPI serves as the state's top education bureaucrat, but with a bully pulpit to influence the direction of education policies. The powers of the office are defined by a dense thicket of state and federal laws.

In fact, it is almost easier to define the office of Superintendent of Public Instruction by its limits than by its powers.

Narrow Powers of the Superintendent of Public Instruction

Doesn't make law

The SPI doesn't make education-related law — that is the shared function of the Assembly, the Senate and the Governor. However, the Superintendent can influence legislation. The staff of the Department of Education is often consulted, because of its deep familiarity with the Education Code.

Not a court

The SPI does not rule on court cases involving education law — that is the function of the judicial branch of government. But the Department of Education plays an important role in resolving complaints of violations.

Doesn't Control Budget

The SPI doesn't control the state education budget — that's determined by a combination of the stock market, voter initiatives (notably Proposition 98) and the budget process, in which the SPI has no vote.

Doesn't Control Policy

Most education policy implementation choices aren't under the control of the SPI, either. In 1993 the California court of appeal ruled in SBE v. Honig that the Department of Education must follow the decisions of the State Board of Education, the members of which are appointed by the governor.

Doesn't Control Textbooks

The SPI doesn't direct the content of learning materials. That's the job of the Instructional Quality Commission of the State Board of Education.

Doesn't Certify Teachers

The certification of teachers isn't under the control of the SPI — that's the role of the independently-appointed Commission on Teacher Credentialing. But the SPI sits on the board.

Doesn't Control Facilities

School facilities? No, that's handled by the State Allocation Board. But the SPI sits on the board.

Doesn't Rescue Schools

School districts in financial crisis? Mostly no, that's usually work for the Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance Team (FCMAT), which is managed by Kern County. But the SPI appoints a deputy as a member.

Doesn't Do Turnarounds

Schools in deep academic crisis? No, that's work for the new California Collaborative for Education Excellence (CCEE), which will be managed out of Marin County. But the SPI sits on the board.

Doesn't Oversee Colleges

The SPI has no official role in the day to day governance of the state's community colleges, which educate more students than the UC and CSU systems combined. (The SPI does, however, sit as a member of the board of regents of the University of California and the board of trustees of the CSU system.)

Operational power

The California Department of Education is a big organization, with about 2,500 employees throughout the state. Of these, nearly a thousand are teachers and staff in regional schools for the deaf and blind. Hundreds more work in federally-supported programs such as administration and oversight of school food services.

Despite its size, the CDE is a tiny part of the education system. California's education system is enormous, with over 6.2 million students and over half a million teachers and staff in K-12 alone. Most of the work happens in schools and districts, not in Sacramento.

The California Department of Education has a well-deserved reputation for bureaucracy, partly because that is the role lawmakers tend to give it. California's Education Code has no single author. It is the chaotic sum of decades of work by lawmakers in a political system. The CDE (and with it, the Superintendent) is regularly tasked with carrying out these laws or ensuring that others do so.

The CDE is responsible for providing the public with accurate and useful data

One of the CDE's most crucial responsibilities is to provide the public with accurate and useful data that can help school systems function and improve. California is far behind other states in this regard, partly because Governor Brown consistently opposed significant investments in data systems. The next Superintendent will almost certainly have an opportunity to advocate for major progress in this area.

Another notable function of the Superintendent of Public Instruction is to serve as the administrator of last resort when a school district implodes financially. Happily, this happens quite rarely thanks to a pattern of successful oversight by county offices of education, even during the Great Recession. When it does happen, though, the SPI is shoved into the role of designated villain, appointing an administrator to oversee the turnaround process, which often involves some tough love and litigation.

Convening, Connecting and Cajoling

The education system operates in parts, each with its own priorities and perspectives. Even when those parts function well individually it does not necessarily follow that the parts will align. The Superintendent of Public Instruction has the difficult task of creating conditions for educational success at a level greater than the sum of the parts. Prior Superintendents of Public Instruction have used the art of political persuasion to support major policy changes. For example, Delaine Eastin championed smaller class sizes and county oversight of district budgets. Jack O'Connell highlighted the need to close the achievement gap. Tom Torlakson is leading an initiative to increase the number of students proficient in more than one language.

Luckily, the new SPI in 2018 will take leadership of a freshly remodeled education system that has a lot going for it, including a growing sense that "alignment" can make a difference. Mike Kirst, the long-serving president of the California State Board of Education, is widely viewed as a lead architect of this remodel, which has involved hard-fought changes in standards, curriculum, assessment, finance and more. He explains the vision for "alignment" in this short video:

This strategic direction has won an impressive degree of support in California, and both candidates for SPI seem to be generally aligned with it. As Kirst describes, implementation has begun for many elements of the vision. The next SPI will be able to make a lot of improvement happen by staying the course.

Some gaps remain, however. Notably, the state critically lacks a cohesive system for early childhood learning. The state has also not stepped up to the essential work of creating a system of teacher "capacity building" and evaluation. Kirst argues that "the time is right" for that work to begin.

Dramatic improvement of the state's education data systems will be a necessary step in that work. Anyone who has ever designed, built, rolled out or lived through a data system remodel project will tell you: it's hard to do well and easy to get wrong. The Dilbert cartoons on the cubicle walls of IT departments are there for a reason.

Comparing the candidates

The best way to get a sense of the candidates is to watch the interviews linked at the top of this post. EdSource.org prepared an excellent comparison of the candidates' positions on policy matters (spoiler: they agree much more than they disagree). The voter guide is a good source, too.

The office of Superintendent is a bully pulpit

Policy positions aren't all that matter, of course. As described above, the SPI formally has less to do with calling the shots than with carrying them out through organizational leadership. But the office of Superintendent is also a bully pulpit. The SPI is the state's chief public advocate for the Big Idea of public education: each child matters and we all benefit when every child learns.

The table below compares the candidates on dimensions aside from their positions.

Executive and Operational experience

Marshall Tuck has led two large school systems in high-poverty areas of Los Angeles: the Green Dot network of charter schools and the Partnership for LA Schools, a network of 18 public schools within LAUSD. In both, student achievement grew strongly.

Some of Tuck's critics question either the significance of the gains or his role in them.

Tony Thurmond has led smaller organizations in Alameda County, for example as executive director of a nonprofit social service agency serving foster youth and young people on probation.

Lawmaking and Policy experience:

Marshall Tuck has not served in the legislative branch or worked as a lawyer.

Tony Thurmond has served as a member of the California State Assembly for more than three years, with legislative results to show for it. He is on the education committee and chairs the committee on Labor and Employment. Prior to the Assembly, he was a government relations officer for nonprofit organizations including the Lincoln Child Center in Oakland. He was a member of the city council of Richmond, California and a member of the West Contra Costa school board.

Some of Thurmond's critics question his record of results in West Contra Costa.

Action plans for the office of Superintendent

Marshall Tuck's platform reflects his experience as an education administrator and includes a focus on how he would administer the Department of Education. He provides more detail in this interview. This is his second time running for the office.

Tony Thurmond's platform reflects his experience as a legislator, and focuses on policies he would advocate for legislatively. He provides more detail in this interview. This is his first time running for the office.

Personal Story

Tuck and Thurmond come from very different backgrounds. Neither candidate has significant teaching experience.

Tuck grew up in a middle class family in California. His education and career has been in the fields of administration and education leadership.

More about Tuck on EdSource.

Thurmond's mother died when he was six, and he was raised by relatives in Philadelphia who worked in government service. Thurmond's education and career has been in the fields of social work and politics.

More about Thurmond on EdSource.

Who Supports Each Candidate?

Both candidates are well-liked and respected by the people who have worked with them.

Tuck is well known and respected in the Los Angeles area, among school administrators, and in the charter school community.

He has the support of the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA) and the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA). He is endorsed by former US secretary of education Arne Duncan and former California SPI Bill Honig.

List of Supporters

Thurmond is well known and respected by his colleagues in the Assembly, his constituents in West Contra Costa, and in the leadership of the Democratic party.

He has the support of California's largest teachers union, the California Teachers Association (CTA). He is endorsed by former California SPI Delaine Eastin and current SPI Tom Torlakson.

List of Supporters

Moral Leadership

Being directly elected by the people of California provides the SPI with a certain degree of moral authority, which might be the office's greatest source of power.

Moral authority might be the office's greatest power

Both candidates agree that California's school system needs significantly more money to improve results for all children. But funding is not under the control of the SPI — ultimately, it's up to the political will of California's voters and the political courage of California's leaders.

When hovering your pen over your ballot, consider this: which candidate will more likely lead us toward an improved education system for all our children?

Questions & Comments

To comment or reply, please sign in .

user avatar
Robert D. Skeels, JD November 1, 2018 at 2:12 pm
Tuck:

killed Heritage Language Programs;
closed down Ethnic Studies Programs;
shuttered Dual Language Immersion Programs;
eliminated Health Education Programs at schools with Students of Color;
ran and tacitly endorsed racist attack ads against his African American opponent;
and supports essentially the same education policies as reactionary Donald Trump and dominionist Betsy DeVos

— Robert D. Skeels, J.D.

fact check here: http://j.mp/TuckNO
user avatar
Jeff Camp October 8, 2018 at 12:09 pm
BIG money being spent in support of the candidates for the SPI office, as noted by Tom Chorneau in K-12 Daily. From a money perspective, the race is being simplified as charter interests vs. union interests.
©2003-2018 Jeff Camp
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