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School choice, charters, and unions — Hot topics as candidates for state schools chief meet for the first time

Laura Greanias | March 21, 2018

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Candidates Tony Thurmond, left, Lily E. Ploski, and Marshall Tuck at the USC forum. (Photo: Ross Brenneman/USC Rossier)

California parents looking for better public schools for their kids will get to elect a new state schools chief in November, and this week was their first chance to compare the three candidates side by side — something parents can’t yet do with schools.

The three candidates for state superintendent of public instruction met for the first time Monday in a forum at USC that displayed more agreement than differences. Gloves will likely come off as the June 5 primary nears, and the next forum is planned for April 7 in Oakland, hosted by the California Alliance for Arts Education.

The Los Angeles forum was the inaugural event of the USC Rossier School of Education’s Center on Education Policy, Equity, and Governance, and was co-sponsored by Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), a collaboration between the University of Southern California, Stanford University, and the University of California, Davis. Watch the roughly 70-minute candidate discussion here.

The candidates for state superintendent of public instruction are Lily E. Ploski, who grew up in Orange County and is a former dean of Solano Community College, state Assemblyman Tony Thurmond representing Richmond in the Bay Area, and Marshall Tuck, Educator-in-Residence at the New Teacher Center. Tuck lives in Los Angeles and was the founding CEO of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools and former president of Green Dot Public Schools.

All three agreed that public education is underfunded, more transparency is needed in school funding, more investment is needed in early education, and teachers need at least three years of experience before granted tenure.


Moderator Adolfo Guzman-Lopez of KPCC started with hot-ticket issues tailored to each of the candidates.

Is Thurmond in the pocket of the California Teachers Association?

“Yes, I am endorsed by CTA and teachers, and I endorse teachers. You can’t have a great education without great teachers. …

“I’m not in anybody’s pocket, and yes, I’ve disagreed with the teachers association. …

The California teachers association was opposed to the change in the school start time to later in the day, and I voted to support to such legislation.” (The bill, SB 328, would have allowed middle and high schoolers to sleep in later but failed to gain enough support last fall and will be reconsidered next year.)

“My job is not to vote just because someone supports me. My job is to do what I’ve said for 11 years as an elected official, to vote in ways that will make my kids proud. … I welcome support from various groups in the community. I tell them up front that doesn’t mean that you get my support or my vote on everything that we do.”

Does Tuck, who has the support of independent charter schools, think charters need more regulation?

“We certainly need to actually have regulation for some charters. No for-profit charters, that makes sense. If a school district is losing enrollment, let’s hold them harmless for a little while,” he said. But “we have to think about a system that works well. … How do we change policy so it’s not this charter or district, but it’s a collective public school system for all kids. … High-quality charters run by nonprofit organizations particularly in our highest-poverty neighborhoods can be a benefit to the public education system.”

When Guzman asked about fraud in charter schools, Tuck said, “For our district and our charter schools, we should have zero tolerance for fraud, zero tolerance. If there’s any issue where people are misusing public funds, they should be shut down immediately and frankly put in jail.

Our kids deserve every single dollar we have towards them, in the classroom, not for the bureaucracy.”

Does Ploski lack the experience needed for the job?

Guzman noted that Ploski doesn’t have any formal experience in managing an organization as large as the California Department of Education. He asked if she thought that would be a disadvantage.

“When you run administration, you have to sit on committees, you have to meet with the board, you have to meet with community members, you have to meet with parents, you have to meet with students. And no matter what size of an organization you’re running, you have to do those same type of roles and work with the same type of leaders,” she said.

“I have experience working on statewide committees, statewide boards, statewide interest groups,” she said, noting that at Solana College she had 150 direct and indirect reports.

“So whether or not I have a thousand people reporting to me or 150 reporting to me, my drive to support every single student be successful in the state of California would never diminish, if anything, it would grow larger.”


Guzman asked a question from the audience on how do you create a system that doesn’t advantage kids whose parents can navigate the complicated system and who are more engaged in their children’s education.


“I’ve worked in both the charter school environment and the district environment … and I remind people, magnet schools is also a choice system. We have over 120,000 kids in magnet schools in LA, and if anybody’s ever tried to do that process, I‘m a parent, I’ve looked at it, and that system is not easy. I think the reality is that a choice system, whether it’s a charter or a magnet school, does have one layer of choice … that requires engagement. So what do we actually do about that?

“What they did in other cities, in Denver, for example, they actually make sure all families know all the public school options. … so there’s not this choice aspect that just kind of requires certain placement in certain schools That’s how you leverage policy to ensure you see more

distribution of students — new immigrants, English learners, special needs kids — across all of our schools. It’s an area with focused policy that we have to work with, always the focus being, best school for every single kid.”


“It comes down to communication. There are so many factors in your choice that as a parent you can be overwhelmed and often unaware of what your options are.

“Parents are seeking alternatives, but not all parents have the resources or the know-how to navigate that system. What I would propose is that we have something called a parent center at every school district … to help them navigate what their system or that district has. … And also a parent portal, something online that they can navigate. And also have regular communication with your superintendent on the local level … to let you know what those options are. Our students are savvy, they know what’s out there, but we need to get the parents involved and we need the community involved.”


“Schools can be intimidating. … (Parents) don’t know what options are available. We should make sure that these great programs, they’re not just aren’t just in some schools, they should be in all schools, and work with our families so they can be engaged.

“That’s why I put so much focus on creating full-service community schools. The school should be the center for the community, the center for the family, the center for the parents and students, and do as much parent engagement to support our families. That might need to look like adult education and adult school programs so parents can learn more to support themselves so they can be more engaged in their child’s lives. I think we ought to double down on those programs, double down in parent engagement, and double down in full-service community schools to help our families and our students.”


How would the candidates improve California’s new way to measure the effectiveness of public schools?


I think it’s a good start. I think our kids are more than a test score, and I appreciate that the dashboard recognizes that we have to look at everything from school climate to dealing with attendance issues. We also have to look at the preparation of our teachers. And what I hear consistently from our teachers is that they have not been given training to actually support students toward the new state standards that we have. … I’d like to give the dashboard a try.”


“I don’t know if more data is on there, but every time I go on there, there’s a lot of new information. A lot of schools I don’t think have been reporting. … There needs to be support to make sure there’s a point person. … We need the information on there, we need to make sure it’s up to date, we need to make sure everyone’s participating, that it’s accurate, that it’s reflective. I also want hear from the students. I want to see the student voices involved. I want to know what they think about what their experience is. …

“Right now I just don’t see it having as much rigor as it could and as much participation as it needs to have.”


“We started working at the most challenging schools in LA in 2008, and one of the first things we did was we created a parent report card, and we did it by having a bunch of parents get together over and over again and tell us what’s the most effective information for you, and that was the foundational point for the feedback we gave our parents.

“With the dashboard right now, it needs to be more user-friendly for our families. There’s some work to be done there. We need to listen to our families and also to listen to the educators on has it made sense for them.

“Secondly, I’d like to see data that’s more comparative. I have a son in our local public school, and I want to see not just how his school’s doing but how his school is doing compared to other schools like his school with similar students because that helps us actually learn as fast as possible and grow in our schools … so we can learn and grow faster.”

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