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Candidates for California's State Superintendent Face Off in Forum

03-California-school-superintendent-article.jpgSacramento, Calif.

At a forum on Friday, Marshall Tuck and Tony Thurmond, candidates for California's next state superintendent, seemed to agree on many of the ironies of California's K-12 school system:

• The state has the world's fifth-largest economy, but one of the nation's worst-funded school systems, according to Education Week's Quality Counts;

• Despite having one of the nation's best higher-education system, its K-12 system graduates hundreds of thousands of black and Latino students who are significantly unprepared for college, and,

• Despite being the home of Silicon Valley, the state still struggles to collect and report rudimentary data on what goes on inside its many schoolhouses.  

But Thurmond and Tuck markedly differ in this hotly contested—and increasingly expensive—race on how best to improve their state's public schools and how to address some of the state's most intractable problems, including the state's teacher shortage and funding crisis.  

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The biggest difference between the two candidates is who they're being backed by. The race is a nonpartisan one,but Tony Thurmond, a career politician and Democratic state legislator, has the support of the state's teachers' union, the California Teachers Association. Marshall Tuck, an education advocate who ran for the job in 2014 but lost, is backed by the state's charter sector.  

Who wins this race will have big policy repercussions as the state looks to overhaul its 26-year-old charter school law, pay down its ballooning pension debt, and address a teacher shortage that's left thousands of students sitting in front of unprepared or substitute teachers for months at a time.  

At Friday's forum, sponsored by the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California, both candidates urged the need for change.

Tuck and Thurmond agreed on many initatives, including expanding the state's pre-K system and its student wrap-around services, providing more money to its schools, and streamlining the state's professional development for teachers. 

But toward the end of the forum, held at the Sheraton Hotel,  sharp policy differences began to emerge.  

Tuck said he wants to change the state's teacher pay structure in order to better incentivize more-experienced and better-qualified teachers to work at the worst-performing schools.

"We need teachers and principals who will stay in high poverty communities," Tuck said.  

Thurmond said that effort would amount to grading teachers based on test scores, a charge Tuck quickly denied. 

"If we create a differentiated pay scale, we'll encourage teachers to teach to the test," Thurmond said.  "Teachers are more than a test score."  

And Thurmond accused Tuck and his supporters of not supporting prior propositions on the state ballot to increase school funding.  

That amounted to a bold-faced lie, Tuck said. 

Throughout the forum, Thurmond described in great detail his up-from-poverty story. 

"I could've ended up in California state prison," Thurmond said. "Instead, I ended up in California's state legislature. My lived experience has informed me on why this work is so important. I think education can save lives because it saved mine." 

And Tuck said he learned by running his own set of charter schools in Los Angeles, all the necessary things to improve schools, which he said required accurate and easy-to-understand data and teacher flexibility.  

"We need to use every tool in the toolkit to provide our children with a quality education," the former president of Green Dot Public Schools said.

Californians will decide who will be their next state superintendent on Nov. 6.

Photo: Marshall Tuck, left, and Tony Thurmond, right, candidates for California's next State Superintendent of Public Instruction, pose for photographs with moderator Mark Baldassare after their debate on Aug. 24 in Sacramento.--Carl Costas for Education Week

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