When California children were stuck at home on distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic and schools reopened unevenly across the state, raising equity concerns, frustrated parents demanded action from the Superintendent. of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond.
but unlike other states, where superintendents were leading the charge, it was Governor Gavin Newsom who led the response to the pandemic in California, negotiating with teachers unions and setting guidelines for schools. Meanwhile, Thurmond was criticized for a lack of action.
Now, two years after the governor and legislative leaders crafted a multibillion-dollar plan to safely reopen schools, lingering frustrations from COVID-19 could add momentum to a decades-old debate over the role of California’s superintendent of public instruction. .
Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) introduced legislation that would require California’s superintendent to be appointed by the governor rather than elected by the voters, in what he called a “good governance” policy that could add power and influence to an office that oversees nearly 6 million public school students.
McCarty said Thurmond has led the state’s schools “admirably” and been “an effective voice,” but that’s not enough, calling the role “nothing more than an education cheerleader.”
“It became very clear to the public during the pandemic that what school districts and parents and educators thought the superintendent could do is not reality,” McCarty said. “They are very limited in their legal authority.”
The success of Assembly Constitutional Amendment 9 — which would require voter approval because it would change the state Constitution — would add California to a list of 38 states where superintendents are appointed rather than elected.
Thurmond opposes the bill, and the politically influential teachers’ unions that endorsed it are prepared to do the same.
If approved by two-thirds of the Legislature and the voters on the ballot, the bill would take effect in 2027 after Thurmond’s final term ends. The measure would bar a superintendent election from taking place in 2026. The potential appointee would “serve at the pleasure” of the governor, with confirmation required by the state Legislature, according to the bill.
Thurmond, a former Democratic state legislator, won re-election last year with more than 60% of the vote against his Republican opponent Lance Christensen despite controversy during his first term, including a staff turnover issue amid Toxic accusations in the workplace. His decision to discreetly hire a friend. living out of state as a top official in 2021 prompted at least two resignations from the California Department of Education.
Thurmond said in a statement that ACA 9 would “take away voter choice and take away an independent voice for education.”
McCarty, who serves on education committees in the state Legislature, said he himself is not interested in the superintendent role.
The superintendent of public instruction, the only nonpartisan position among California’s eight state constitutional officers, has long been described as ineffective and ceremonial.
The superintendent oversees the operation of the California Department of Education, but local school officials control much of what happens in the more than 1,000 school districts, and in many ways the governor and Legislature have more power over education policy. The State Board of Education also acts as a regulatory body, adopting textbooks and academic standards.
The debate over whether the position should be elected or appointed has been ongoing for decades. “Once again, the issue of how the State Superintendent of Public Instruction will be selected is making headlines on the political front in California,” he said. a report Published by the California Assembly in 1963.
Heather Hough, executive director of the Policy Analysis of California Education, a nonpartisan think tank at Stanford University, said it makes sense that the chaos of the pandemic has returned this debate to the public domain, a time when there was more scrutiny. in the office. of the superintendent from what she has seen in her decades of political work.
“I think the pandemic really brought him into the public eye in a way that he wasn’t before, how there’s not a lot of positional authority in that role, which begs the question: why do we have a chosen one? officer if that position does not have the leadership ability associated with it? she said. “The way it’s built in California now is very much a management position.”
Supporters of making the superintendent an appointed position say politicians should not seek the position but rather qualified school administrators.
Being appointed by the administration could create a better guarantee of “broad-scale change,” said Megan Bacigalupi, executive director of California Parent Power, a state advocacy organization launched at the height of the pandemic focused on transparency in schools.
“Now, there’s a disconnect between the two offices, and that’s a disservice to California students,” he said.
Malia Vella, deputy superintendent for the California Department of Education, said Thurmond has been a productive superintendent, noting legislation he has sponsored regarding issues like universal preschool and additional school counselors. Vella said that she played an important role in supporting schools during the pandemic, including fighting for access to COVID-19 testing.
That work would be “reduced,” he said, if future superintendents are appointed rather than elected.
“I think the legislative and budget process works better when you have an independently elected official whose sole focus is education,” Vella said.
California Teachers Association. Spokeswoman Claudia Briggs said the union has yet to form an official position on the bill, but noted that it has opposed similar attempts in the past, “not wanting to take that option away from parents and voters.”
California Federation of Teachers President Jeff Freitas said, “We support democracy in our public education system.”
ACA 9 would allow the governor to choose how long a superintendent serves; The position is currently limited to two four-year terms like other state constitutional officers.
Connie Leyva, a former member of the Democratic Assembly, has expressed interest in running for state superintendent in 2026. Now the CEO of KVCR, an NPR station in the Inland Empire, Leyva said she is undecided if she will run, but strongly opposes the McCarty’s bill. .
“At a time when we need more civic engagement and we need to strengthen democracy, why would we remove an elected office and appoint him? It doesn’t make sense to me,” he said. “I always feel that appointments lend themselves to being riddled with political favoritism.”
Delaine Eastin, a Democrat who served as state superintendent from 1995 to 2003, said ACA 9 would diminish the independent role in a state where education accounts for at least 40% of the budget each year. The superintendent should act as a stronger advocate for public school students, not a soldier for the governor, she said.
“If any constitutional official other than the governor must be chosen, it must be the (superintendent of public instruction),” he said. “I really believe that the superintendent should be someone who is a voice for children and their education and not just get along with the governor.”