By Joe W. Bowers Jr. | California Black Media
When Tony Thurmond, State Superintendent of Public Education (SSPI) was elected in 2018, he became the second African American to hold the office since the California Constitution of 1849 established him. Wilson Riles was the first black SSPI in California and the country. In 1970, he was also the first African American to vote for a statewide office in California.
Recently, Thurmond spoke to California Black Media (CBM) about his experience as the state’s top elected education official. He says the COVID-19 pandemic has been the defining challenge of his tenure.
It affected everything – from forcing him to suddenly draft a revised strategy for supporting schools to keeping students and staff safe. It did so while taking steps to improve the overall quality of public education.
âMarch 13, 2020. March 13, I will never forget it,â Thurmond told CBM. He was in his office when he started getting calls’ asking ‘what are we going to do?’ as school districts announced they were closing to mitigate the spread of the virus.
The response to the COVID-19 pandemic has forced Thurmond to delay action on initiatives he identified as priorities when he took office.
The first step was to address the safe opening of schools and the management of specific systemic inequalities, particularly experienced by students of color.
The California Department of Education (CDE) plan of action included securing 2 million masks for schools and working with the governor’s office to get five million rapid COVID tests.
As schools were closed, the state’s education department provided more than 500 million meals for students and families. When the vaccines became available, the CDE developed a campaign that encouraged staff and students to get vaccinated.
While it was up to each school district to decide how it would handle the COVID-19 crisis, Thurmond held weekly meetings with all county superintendents to discuss plans to safely reopen schools.
When distance learning became necessary, inequalities in access to technology were exposed. One-fifth of California students did not have the resources to continue their education at home, either because of no internet connection, no computer at home, or both.
To find a solution to the problem, Thurmond convened a committee which he named the âWorking Group on Closing the Digital Divideâ.
âWe appointed legislators to this committee by design. We knew that in order to get the attention of ISPs, they had to see lawmakers, âsaid Thurmond.
As a result, the state has been able to provide computers and wireless access points, improving Internet connectivity to more than 400 school districts in nearly all of California’s 58 counties. According to Thurmond, âThere is about $ 6 billion to develop broadband in the state budget this year. The task force helped lay the groundwork for this.
Thurmond points out that state law gives SSPI limited authority over California public education policies, funding, and infrastructure. But despite his limited power, Thurmond sees the role of the SSPI as much more than a figurehead. As one of eight elected statewide, voters have given him a prominent chair of intimidation from which he can influence education policy.
âThey said the office didn’t have a lot of tools to get things done directly, but I felt very confident using my connections with the Legislature and the Governor that I could find a way to bring to light. big issues and finding ways to influence them even if it should happen indirectly, âThurmond said.
The governor and the legislature determine public funding for education and set policy direction. The State Board of Education determines academic standards, curriculum, teaching materials, assessments, and accountability.
The SSPI has no legal authority over the state’s 1,000 local school districts. Each of the state’s 58 county education offices – not the SSPI – approves school district budgets and provides assistance and instruction on how they can improve their educational programs.
Thurmond’s primary job is to manage the day-to-day operations of the CDE, which has approximately 2,600 employees and enforces California education laws and regulations. It also administers federal and state education programs and oversees compliance with federal educational grants.
In addition, it performs some administrative tasks, such as collecting and compiling state-wide data on district spending and student performance.
In 2018, Thurmond decided not to seek another term in the Assembly and to run instead to be SSPI. That way he could work full time on education issues. At the time, he was a two-term assembly member representing the 51st Bay Area Assembly District.
A popular politician among his voters, Thurmond won 90% of the vote in his last election to the Assembly.
For Thurmond, education is the great equalizer. He says it helps children overcome difficult circumstances and opens up avenues of opportunity for all children in California. He began his tenure as SSPI by proposing an ambitious eight-year plan to dramatically increase school funding and expand early childhood education.
From his first month in office, Thurmond formed 13 transition teams with more than 1,000 people. Those teams focused on its top priority: closing racial and economic gaps and gaps in opportunity in a state where African American and Latino children perform below state standards on passing tests.
Town halls and webinars focused on black and brown student success became the genesis of his initiative to support funding to diversify the teaching workforce.
Now that school districts have adopted the safety protocols such as masking, vaccinations and testing necessary to remain open to in-person learning, Thurmond says he has turned his attention once again to pursuing initiatives before. -pandemic.
In September, he launched a literacy goal to ensure that all third-graders can read by 2026. He also appointed the task force to improve outcomes for black students.
Thurmond told CBM: âI feel like I am now in a place where, as Maxine Waters says, ‘I’m getting my time back’. I came to the department thinking I would have eight years to work on literacy in third grade, and that was undermined because of the pandemic. “
State and federal government funding for public education in California is at an historic level. As a result, money is available for initiatives Thurmond advocates such as universal pre-kindergarten and universal meals, community schools, family engagement, and student mental health services.
During his inauguration, Thurmond told the audience: âThis job is the type of job where you are fully blamed for what is wrong, but you don’t have the resources to fix what needs to be fixed.
Although Thurmond was speaking in general at the time, his observation could apply to recent criticisms leveled at him in the media about the high turnover of his senior executives.
Thurmond believes the CDE is underfunded and understaffed to be able to meet its bureaucratic responsibilities and support the initiatives he sees as public education priorities. He says: âI took the time to think about how to structure the organization and how to restructure it.
Regarding comments on his public visibility during the COVID-19 crisis, Thurmond’s take is, âThe way this work works, there’s a part of it that people will never see. But I would like to think that we were the glue between the principals, the legislators and the governor. In my role, we had to be that glue between these entities, and that interferes with how decision-making happens.
Thurmond doesn’t have a button he can push to make things happen in California public schools. But he has a microphone to broadcast where the problems are and the good news is he has the connections he is able to influence education policy with for the benefit of California public education students. .