Incumbent Tony Thurmond and challenger Lance Christensen head to November runoff in race to lead California schools – Monterey Herald
In a race that will determine the future of public schools in the Golden State after two years of pandemic closures, loss of student learning, crippling enrollment declines and rising rates of chronic absenteeism, California voters will choose this fall between very different candidates: incumbent and longtime politician Tony Thurmond and challenger and parent choice advocate Lance Christensen.
Thurmond won 45.9% of the vote in the June primary – short of the 50% needed to avoid a runoff as voters, upset over the way schools have been run during the pandemic, split their choices between six other candidates. Christensen took second place with 11.9% of the vote and will face Thurmond in the Nov. 8 election to decide who becomes the state’s next superintendent of public instruction.
This news agency asked the two candidates about their K-12 education priorities and how they will implement their plans in November if elected. The candidates are widely at odds over school vouchers, teachers’ unions and even ethnic studies and sex education curricula.
Thurmond has served as state superintendent since 2019. In other political roles, he has served as a member of the state assembly, a Richmond alderman, and a school board member for the West Contra Costa Unified School District. It is supported by the California Teachers Association and the Democratic Party, among others.
Thurmond raised more than $1.5 million in campaign contributions. He spent $724,000 from Jan. 1 to May 21, the last primary election declaration deadline, and has more than $500,000 available for the general election, according to state campaign finance records.
Thurmond draws on a platform of experience, a proven ability to work with the state legislature and governor to implement policy, and a commitment to maintaining state funding for public schools. .
Christensen is vice president of education policy and government relations at the California Policy Center and a former finance budget analyst for the Department of Treasury. Christensen is supported by Reopen California Schools, Contra Costa County Parents, Patriots for Freedom PAC and others. He received about $42,000 in campaign contributions and spent about $23,000 between Jan. 1 and May 21, leaving about $20,000 on hand, according to state campaign finance records. He lives in Wheatland, a town in Yuba County north of Sacramento.
Unlike his opponent, Christensen is running on a platform of parental choice, conservative values and giving in to his expertise in public finance. He opposes teachers’ unions, sex-ed programs and ethnic studies – which he calls “critical race theory”, supports the parent choice movement calling for vouchers for private schools and leaving financial decisions in the hands of local school districts.
“Thurmond has been a non-entity during school closures and the pandemic,” Christensen said. “We knew we could get in there and we would have a shot at the general election.”
The race is non-partisan, but a conservative candidate like Christensen may not have garnered as much support in the pre-pandemic years in the liberal-majority state of California. In a massive shift in interest in who runs public schools, sleepy school board races are now hot political contests.
Bands of votes for Christensen came from the central valley and far northern counties of the state, Orange County, San Luis Obispo and San Diego counties. Thurmond garnered more than 50% of the vote in Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Mendocino, Napa, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, San Mateo, Solano, Sonoma and Yolo counties.
In an interview, Thurmond defended the support he created for families during the pandemic. In recent years, he has sponsored several bills, including Sen. Anthony Portantino’s bill that could help train and place 10,000 new mental health clinicians in schools, and a budget proposal from Governor Gavin Newsom to allocate millions to literacy coaches and reading specialists. Funding for these areas is reflected in the new $128 billion state budget for schools recently signed by the governor.
The public school budget grew nearly 13 percent under Thurmond’s leadership. Additional funds include more than $1 billion for community schools — public schools that provide services to support their neighborhoods.
If re-elected, he wants to increase student access to vocational technical education and STEM programs, and provide ways to recruit more educators to fill a critical shortage of teaching staff.
If elected, Christensen said he would encourage the state to conduct an audit of funding allocated to school districts during the pandemic. He said he would also work to give parents more choice and schools more local control over budgets and other items, but did not give details.
“They have to take ownership of their own successes and failures,” he said. He supports vouchers for private schools and plans to let parents decide where funding for their children should go, whether charter, private, virtual or home.
“We’ve seen public schools ill-prepared to take on the distance education framework (during the pandemic), but charter schools were mostly adaptable to that,” Christensen said. “Instead of further encouraging this type of behavior, we continued to push back against charter schools and methods.”
Thurmond said his opponent was alarmist. He said his team would work hard against all privatization and all vouchers, and work to get children and families back into public schools amid declining enrollment that has worsened during the pandemic.
“I think parents have a right to be upset, but the pandemic has taken a million lives and created huge disruption and we’ve seen high levels of depression among students,” Thurmond said. “During that time, I helped get a million computers into schools and helped them get rapid COVID tests. … Our parent power group and other efforts are giving parents a reason to reinvest in California schools.
Writer Harriet Rowan contributed to this report.