2018 Election: Your guide to the race for state superintendent

(Left to right, top to bottom) 2018 candidates for California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, Steven Ireland, Lily Plosky, Marshall Tuck.
(Left to right, top to bottom) 2018 candidates for California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, Steven Ireland, Lily Plosky, Marshall Tuck.

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The June 5 primary is almost here — and some of the empty circles on your ballot will be for the California superintendent of public instruction.

It’s not a very high-profile race, especially compared to the contest for California governor. Nevertheless, the next state superintendent will be the foremost elected official charged with overseeing California’s public schools.

The job description

The state superintendent is a non-partisan elected official who advocates for educational reform. As the executive office of the Department of Education, he or she sets the tone and can guide the state’s priorities when it comes to education.

California is home to more than a thousand school districts, and the state superintendent oversees them all. The job isn't to create educational policy — that's on the legislature and Board of Education — but the superintendent makes sure districts comply with state laws and federal standards. The main tasks: distribute funding to districts, monitor how that money is spent and track academic performance.

The candidates

Unless a candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two candidates with the most votes will advance to the November election. Here are your choices:

Lily Ploski, candidate for California Superintendent of Public Instruction
Lily Ploski, candidate for California Superintendent of Public Instruction

Lily Ploski

Ploski touts a career in education, including a doctorate in educational leadership. Originally from Orange County, she is currently an instructor in the Outward Bound program at Mills College. Read Lily Ploski’s full bio on Voter’s Edge or her campaign website.


On academic performance: California’s education system should match California’s values, Ploski says. “Are we going to focus on having the largest incarceration rate, or are we going to have one of the best education systems?” she said on Take Two. She says California needs a leader with education experience to discern where education dollars are going and to more specifically detail how it's allocated: “We have to be very prescriptive when it comes to funding.” 

On school funding: Ploski isn’t a fan of how Local Control Funding Formula, the school funding and accountability system enacted in 2013, has played out. The intention was to select schools with a high population of underperforming students, and provide them with additional funding to lift those students up. Ploski says the problem is that funding wasn’t tied to specific spending requirements. She says the system will be effective if we “tie it to actual outcomes and actual services that the students really need, which is often tutoring or mental health support.” 

On academic disparity: “When you offer a very specific funding model program, all the scores go up,” Ploski. Black and Latino students perform below their peers academically, and she says the way to help those students is make better use of allocated funds. “What you need is to have that clear language to say, when you are receiving additional funds to support our African-American and Latino students, we want to see that they are being offered these program.” 

On charters vs. teachers' unions: Ploski believes in oversight of charter schools, but also says charters are here to stay — and that she doesn't want to spend time arguing over whether they're valid. She says she’s the independent candidate that isn’t beholden to the Charter School Association or teachers' unions, and wants to build bridges. “It’s not an ‘either-or’ proposition. It’s a ‘both and,’” she said.


Steven Ireland

Ireland is running on his experience as a parent of children enrolled in traditional public schools, charters, and everything in between. He says that since the state superintendent is the only elected member of the Board of Education, the person in the job should represent the parent’s perspective. Read Steven Ireland’s full bio on Voter’s Edge or his campaign website.


On academic performance: Ireland points to per pupil funding as the primary contributor to state’s poor academic standing, but he wants to focus first on the kids most in need — like homeless students. Students who don't have a stable, permanent housing situation struggle in class, which can affect other students as well, he says.

On school funding: Ireland says California's school funding system, Local Control Funding Formula, hasn't directed funds at the students who need it the most. “Tom Torlekson, the current superintendent, interpreted [LCFF] as 'Lets give teachers raises instead of the most at-risk kids in our state,” Ireland said on Take Two. Ireland said that Torlekson’s approach to LFCC funds was a result of a “special interest deal,” referring to the help Torlekson received from teachers' unions to get elected.  

On academic disparity: To bridge achievement gaps, Ireland says we need to distribute LCFF funds in a better way, and find ways to keep good teachers at underperforming schools. “If we pay [teachers] more and incentivize them, we can get them to those schools and keep them there,” he says. The idea is in contrast to the seniority system, where more experienced teachers can pass on a spot at a troubled school.  

On charters vs. teachers' unions: Ireland says that because he’s not backed by the charters or the unions, he’s not obligated to favor any side when deciding the future of education: “I’m not opposed to any way that we educate our children, as long as we get the job done.”

*In his interview, Ireland referred to campaign fundraising by the Marshall Tuck and Tony Thurmond campaigns. We fact checked the numbers and they were not exact but they were pretty close. You can check out the numbers for yourself on the VoteSmart website. 

Marshall Tuck

Tuck was president of the Green Dot charter school network before becoming CEO of the Partnership for L.A. Schools. He’s currently an educator-in-residence at the New Teacher Center. Tuck bills himself as a school improvement director with experience running charter and traditional public schools. He ran against the current state superintendent, Tom Torlekson, in 2014, taking home nearly 48 percent of the vote. Read Marshall Tuck's full bio on Voter’s Edge or his campaign website.


On academic performance: Tuck talks about increased training and continued mentoring and support for teachers and principals as the remedy for poor academic performance. He points to his time at Green Dot as an example of what can be brought to other districts. “When we had investment in our teachers and principals, we got our parents involved, leveraged technology, our kids soared and had real success,” he said on Take Two.

On school funding: Tuck speaks favorably about Gov. Jerry Brown's intentions for the state's school funding system, Local Control Funding Formula. But Tuck says the way the money was spent after it was distributed to schools somewhat defeated its purpose: “The problem was on the implementation. Not all the money is actually getting to the highest poverty kids."

On academic disparity: Tuck says we need to create ongoing resources for educators. “The schools I led, we paid principals more to come work in Watts, East L.A. and South L.A., because they’re harder jobs. We also gave our teachers a lot more training on how to best support our kids in the communities they are coming from."

On charters vs. teachers' unions: Tuck says he has a “unique perspective," having experience managing both charters and traditional public schools. He says he’ll bring interest groups together over their common concerns: “They all agree we have to invest in our teachers and principals, so let’s bring people together and work on those policies that make the most sense in every single school.”

Tony Thurmond

Thurmond is a California legislator representing the 15th Assembly District in the Bay Area. Prior to his tenure in the Assembly, Thurmond served as a school board member and social worker. He lists himself as an educator and legislator on the ballot. You can read Tony Thurmond’s full bio on Voter’s Edge or his campaign website.


On academic performance: Thurmond says a universal preschool program is the first step in addressing low academic performance. He adds that intervention needs to happen both within a classroom environment and in the home, and encourages parents to read more with young children.  “There’s nothing more important than early childhood education to help make sure we prevent the achievement gap in the first place,” he said on Take Two.

On school funding: Thurmond says money handled under the state's school funding system, Local Control Funding Formula, should go directly to students most in need. But he is also less critical than some of his peers of the choice to direct some of those funds to teacher salaries. “Local Control Funding Formula does not give us the full level of funding that we need, and given the pressure that districts feel, I’m sure districts made different choices about how to use those dollars to fill gaps.”

On academic disparity: Thurmond says social and economic strains block equal access to education, and says schools need to provide more nutritional and mental health services. He also says exams need to be written with “cultural competency” so as not to disenfranchise students of diverse backgrounds. “The examples are unique to more Euro-focused kinds of backgrounds, and the students may know the words, but not the meaning behind the words.”

On charters vs. teacher unions: “I think it’s really easy to put things into a box and make it look like it’s this group against that group, but the needs around education are more complex than that,” Thurmond said on Take Two. He states that his record is balanced when it comes to charters and traditional public schools, and that we need to find common ground over what’s best for students.

Ready for Tuesday's primary election? We're here to help. Go to KPCC's Voter Game Plan page for information on candidates, ballot measures and an election guide personalized for you.