National News

A Costly Race for State Superintendent

Posted October 29, 2018 1:16 p.m. EDT

Even among the most engaged voters, the race for California state superintendent may not attract much attention. But it is attracting huge amounts of money: upward of $43 million, mostly funneled to outside groups running advertisements in the race.

The battle for the state school’s chief is between two Democrats: Tony Thurmond, a state assemblyman from the Bay Area, and Marshall Tuck, a former education executive from Los Angeles. The state superintendent, a nonpartisan office, does not have any independent policymaking authority, making the costly race even more peculiar. But charter school supporters have thrown millions behind Tuck, while the state teachers’ unions have given their dollars to attract votes for Thurmond.

The New York Times spoke to Julie Marsh, a professor of education policy at the University of Southern California, to understand the significance of a race between candidates who agree on many major education issues, including more state funding for schools. Here is our interview, which has been condensed.

Q: What are the differences between these two candidates? How do they differ in their approaches to policy?

A: They have a lot in common, and they agree on a lot of issues. They agree about locally controlled funding, they are both opposed to for-profit charter schools, they both want to hold charter schools accountable, they are both committed to closing achievement gaps.

The big differences seem to be more like small differences in how they think about charter schools and how districts should spend funds; that’s the reason we’re seeing the money flow in for this race. While the position will not give them the authority to legislate on these issues, they do have the ability to influence and give guidance. People see it as ground zero for the battle of how to improve public schools and how to make that happen.

Q: How should voters think about who to vote for?

A: That is a tough question, even for many of my colleagues who are immersed in this. I am not endorsing anyone. One question you should ask in any election is who is endorsing them and who is funding them. Where do you stand with those groups? I would be very careful with paying much attention to the attack ads. I think some of them are very misleading.

Q: What impact will the outside money have?

A: I think the question of where the money is coming from and how much influence it will have is really important. When it’s so clear the amount of money that is coming in, the questions is inevitably: Do they feel beholden to those groups? Will they have the independence to reflect and make the judgment for themselves?