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In nonpartisan race for California superintendent of public instruction, it’s all politics

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The superintendent of public instruction is the only nonpartisan statewide office in California, but it seems impossible to separate politics from the race between Democratic incumbent Tony Thurmond and Republican challenger Lance Christensen.

Neither shy away from stepping into the partisan fray.

As superintendent, Thurmond, who was elected in 2018 after a term in the California Assembly, has been in lockstep with Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. He has promoted LGBTQ-inclusive books in school libraries amid fights against them in some Republican-led states; issued a statement supporting abortion rights after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade and launched discussions about institutional racism after the police killing of George Floyd.

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Christensen, an education and government affairs director for the conservative California Policy Center, has railed against Newsom, teachers unions, comprehensive sex education, critical race theory and masks in schools during COVID-19. Unlike Thurmond, he opposes a November ballot measure to secure abortion access in the California constitution.

Christensen, who also has state Capitol experience as a staffer to Republican lawmakers, said that politics don’t matter in the race for state superintendent.

“I’m not running as a Republican. It’s not partisan, it all comes down to ideology,” he said. “My ideology is such that I just really believe that parents own their children and have full control over them, not some bureaucrat.”

Thurmond disagrees that the politics don’t matter.

“I think that he’s articulating dangerous messages that actually would have a negative impact on many of our students. We need to prevent young people from being coopted in these hateful messages,” Thurmond said of Christensen. “If you come in attacking teachers as he has, attacking social groups, how is he going to build any coalition to support the important work that needs to be done?”

For Thurmond, who has had a tumultuous first term as superintendent, Christensen’s politics could work in his favor.

Thurmond has endorsements from the influential California Teachers Association and the California Democratic Party in a state where a likeminded supermajority reigns. Those endorsements come despite allegations of a toxic workplace and criticism for hiring a friend on the East Coast to helm a top-paying state Department of Education position.

Thurmond’s team pointed to Christensen’s affiliation with the Bradley Impact Fund as one reason why he should not be elected. According to his 700 forms, last year Christensen was paid $2,050 by the conservative organization, which has promoted baseless election fraud claims in support of former president Donald Trump.

Christensen said that “is not relevant at all,” and though he is outspoken about his conservative views, he laments the focus on his political stances that aren’t directly tied to the operation of California’s K-12 schools and success of its near 6 million students.

“Donald Trump has zero to do with what I’m trying to accomplish here, but because I have an ‘R’ behind my name, that’s what they’re going to hit me with,” Christensen said.

Unlike in most states, the superintendent of public instruction in California is elected by voters instead of appointed by the governor.

The superintendent oversees the California Department of Education, which employs more than 2,000 employees and ensures schools stay in compliance with a slew of policies, including how they spend state dollars.

But local school boards and county superintendents have much say over what happens in their districts, and in many ways, the Legislature and state school board have more power over education in the state than the superintendent of public instruction.

Arguably, the SPI’s greatest power is the bully pulpit, as they can fight for the ear of the governor and lawmakers to influence policy and provide guidance to local districts.

If elected in November, Christensen said he will appoint a “chief parent advocate” to influence education policy. He has also vowed to audit state Education Department dollars to slim down “bureaucratic bloat”; overhaul what he calls archaic education code and give even more authority to district superintendents in a state that is already pro-local control.

Thurmond, if reelected, has vowed to ensure that every current kindergartener — more than 450,000 students — can read by the third grade by 2026. Currently, less than half of California’s third-graders read at sufficient levels, according to the latest state test scores. The third grade is viewed by educators as a crucial academic marker when students go from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.”

Thurmond also has goals of hiring 10,000 new counselors in schools. He pointed to legislation he sponsored to acquire funding in the latest state budget for programs focused on mental health workers as one of his proudest accomplishments, citing the need for emotional support for youth.

“The most important thing that a state superintendent can do is find ways to work with the governor and the Legislature to get resources for districts,” he said. “It’s about understanding all the parts of how you get policy done and how you get revenue.”

Christensen does not see Thurmond’s past as a state lawmaker as a benefit, but a detriment. Parents are tired of the status quo and lifetime politicians, he said.

“They all universally say it’s not acceptable,” Christensen said of parents he’s met on the campaign trail discussing the state of public education in California. “[Thurmond] is absolutely ineffective.”

The odds are in Thurmond’s favor. He has 20 times more campaign funding than Christensen, raising $1.7 million in direct contributions alone. The California Teachers Association has put more than $1 million into an independent expenditure committee to reelect him.

And not a single Republican has been elected for statewide office in California since 2006.

But incumbency has its downfalls too. Thurmond must answer tough questions about declining enrollment, a teacher shortage, alarming standardized test scores and how the state plans to correct pandemic setbacks.

“Even though it’s not something I have direct control over, I knew day one that I would get blamed for all kinds of things that would be out of my control. But that’s OK, I’m deeply committed to having young people have success,” he said. “I don’t spend a lot of time trying to explain it away. At the end of the day, people have a right to be upset and we have to be very focused on that.”

Christensen believes that voters care about Thurmond’s record enough to vote him out, including parents frustrated with the state’s handling of school closures and distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic under his leadership. Thurmond was criticized for not being out in front of pandemic issues, unlike superintendents in other states.

While Thurmond could have won the race in the June primary had he garnered enough votes, he fell short of the 50% needed, securing about 46%. Christensen came in second place, with nearly 12% of the votes.

This superintendent race pales in comparison to the 2018 election, when Thurmond and fellow Democratic candidate Marshall Tuck sparred in a close, $60-million competition focused on charter schools.

Like Tuck, Christensen supports charter schools — his children have attended them. Thurmond supported teachers unions in their fight against them, promoting a law signed in 2019 that cracked down on regulations and standards for the non-traditional public schools.

Christensen has repeatedly invited Thurmond to a public debate but Thurmond has rejected those offers.

“He has an incredibly dangerous message of propaganda that is harmful. I’m not going to give him a platform to spread that message and hurt our kids,” Thurmond said.

The election is Nov. 8.

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