In Nonpartisan Race for California Superintendent of Public Instruction, It’s All Politics

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.

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.

Click here to read the full article in the LA Times

In Lawsuit Over Distance Learning, Parents Accuse San Diego Schools of Violating Constitution

Five of San Diego County’s largest school districts and one charter school were sued last week by parents who say the schools failed to provide adequate instruction to their children during distance learning two years ago in what they allege was a violation of their constitutional rights.

Twenty parents and guardians filed the federal lawsuit against San Diego Unified, Sweetwater Union High, Chula Vista Elementary, Grossmont Union High, La Mesa-Spring Valley and the Helix High charter school in La Mesa. Those schools altogether enroll 184,400 students, almost 40 percent of the county’s public school students.

The lawsuit is one of several that California parents have previously filed against state and school district officials over distance learning since the pandemic began.

The defendant school districts and Helix High declined to comment on the pending litigation. Some said they are still reviewing the lawsuit.

In the lawsuit, which is seeking class-action status, the parents say the schools failed to provide the minimum number of hours of instruction and components of distance learning required by state law during the 2020-21 school year, when schools were closed for months at a time due to COVID-19. For example, some parents said their children sometimes went whole school days without a check-in or instruction from their teacher.

“During the COVID-19 related school closures, children were too often ignored by the public schools that were required to educate them,” said Marc Levine, a Los Angeles-based attorney representing the parent plaintiffs, in an email. “We are hopeful that, as a result of this action, these children will be given an opportunity to reverse the excessive learning loss they have experienced.”

State law required schools to provide three to four hours of instruction each school day during distance learning, depending on the student’s grade level. Those three to four hours of daily online instruction did not have to consist entirely of live instruction; instead, those hours were to be based on the time value of assignments given.

For distance learning, schools had to provide students with computers, adequate internet connectivity, academic content that was on par with what they would have received during in-person learning, special education services if needed, and daily live interaction with teachers, which could involve online or telephone communication.

The lawsuit also accuses the districts and Helix of violating state law by offering only distance learning to the vast majority of their students for much of the 2020-2021 school year. The plaintiffs point to a state law that said schools and districts “shall offer in-person instruction, and may offer distance learning.”

The plaintiffs allege that the defendant schools failed to provide sufficient distance learning and violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

During the 2020-2021 year, many schools and districts were at times blocked from reopening for general in-person learning by state public health officials.

Schools and districts were allowed to provide small-group, in-person instruction to certain students. But many were barred from reopening to general in-person learning until COVID-19 levels declined in their areas if they had not reopened for in-person learning during the fall of 2020.

Some districts, including San Diego Unified, Chula Vista Elementary, Sweetwater Union High and La Mesa-Spring Valley, chose to delay reopening for weeks after the state allowed them to reopen, citing continuing COVID-19 health risks.

Parents across California have filed multiple similar lawsuits arguing that public schools provided low-quality education during distance learning.

One of the most publicized lawsuits filed against Gov. Gavin Newsom in July 2020 argued that the forced school closures and distance learning violated their children’s due process and equal protection rights under the 14th Amendment.

An appeals court sided last year with a lower court that rejected those claims for public school parents and had ruled that the 14th Amendment does not recognize a fundamental right to a public education.

Click here to read the full article at the San Diego Union Tribune

How Did California Schools Spend Billions in COVID Aid?

Imagine your boss giving you a check equal to four months salary and telling you to spend it quickly or risk giving it back. That in essence is what leaders in Sacramento and Washington did for California schools after the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly shutdown classrooms.

The result was a series of stimulus measures that allocated $33.5 billion in state and federal funds, a staggering amount of one-time funding for the state’s cash-strapped schools, equal to a third of all the money they got the year before the pandemic.

So how did they spend it? Billions have gone to things like laptops, air filters and mental health counselors – money to help kids. But much of the funding has come with limited oversight and little transparency, according to an investigation by CalMatters, a nonprofit news organization.

Of the $5.9 billion local education agencies have spent so far from the largest of the stimulus funds, more than a quarter went to a category for “other” expenses, according to the state.

“I’m just not sure anyone has a good handle on how this money was spent,” said John Affeldt, managing attorney at Public Advocates who works on educational equity issues.

CalMatters spent three months examining school COVID relief spending across the state, reviewing thousands of pages of records obtained through more than 45 public records requests.

The records offer a unique glimpse at how school leaders grappled with the generational challenge of COVID in dollars and cents. In the East Bay, for example, Castro Valley Unified spent most of its stimulus money on payroll. On the Peninsula, Burlingame schools spent more than $300,000 on Chromebooks. In Southern California, El Centro Elementary School District spent $3.8 million to install shade structures for outdoor eating, school assemblies and teaching space, and Long Beach Unified spent nearly $13,000 on music recorders.

The records also reveal the other pandemic winners – companies that reaped millions as overwhelmed districts, suddenly flush with cash, started writing checks.

Some are established firms well-positioned to fill massive orders for goods. Others are new ventures launched by savvy entrepreneurs to capture some of the windfall, including a limited liability company headquartered out of a UPS drop box that got a $52 million no-bid COVID testing contract in San Diego.

One chain of virtual charter schools gave $11 million – nearly two-thirds of its stimulus spending last year – to the publicly traded, for-profit company affiliated with the schools. And a Southern California public school district spent $440,000 to hire an evangelical group for a program to help at-risk kids.

Other records reveal clear mistakes or misspending. The state told West Contra Costa Unified School District to shift nearly $800,000 in unrestricted funds to reimburse its stimulus money because the district failed to prove certain payroll costs were tied to the pandemic. Oakland Unified had to reimburse nearly $1 million in stimulus money it apparently misspent on things like commercial trucks and a communication system, records show.

Some districts refused to provide CalMatters records showing where their money is going. That includes San Francisco Unified, which got more than $186 million in federal stimulus funds.

And local educational agencies still have billions of dollars of COVID relief left to spend. If they don’t spend it by various deadlines, they may have to return it.

In a written statement to CalMatters, the state Department of Education said it is “encouraged by the impact that stimulus funding is having on the students and schools of California,” and that overseeing the funds is a top priority.

“The department has a robust monitoring system to ensure that (agencies’) expenditures are in accordance with all applicable federal and state requirements,” according to the statement.

Still, it might not be enough. The state auditor’s office criticized oversight in an October report, saying the state is not using the limited data it receives to identify abnormal spending patterns and scrutinize local educational agencies.

“The state Department of Education has not taken a very active role in managing how the money is being spent,” said Kris Patel, supervising auditor who led the team behind the October report.

Money, money, money

Ultimately, California public schools and charters got almost $29 billion in federal stimulus money. Billions more came from state programs lawmakers in Sacramento created.

To get a cross-section of the stimulus spending, CalMatters asked more than 30 school districts for their accounting ledgers. Those districts included the 20 biggest and 10 random agencies across a geographically and demographically diverse swath of the state.

Castro Valley Unified spent $263,000 in stimulus funds on Freedom Soul Media Education Initiatives, an equity consultant, and $93,000 on restorative justice consultants, records show. Santa Ana Unified gave $393,000 to Angels Baseball LP to rent out the major league baseball stadium for last year’s high school graduation festivities.

“There’s a district in the Central Coast area that bought an ice cream truck with their money” to give away ice cream to kids stuck at home during the early days of the pandemic, said Michael Fine, chief executive officer of the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, a state-created organization that helps fiscally troubled school districts get their finances in order. “When I was told that I kind of went off.”

One common area of spending was technology. Some districts spent heavily on laptops, hot spots and other hardware, as well as computer programs and support in order to make the switch to virtual schooling when buildings shut down.

Some educators and advocates question the amount of high-tech spending.

“Consulting companies and education service providers have been really aggressive in reaching out to districts to use these funds for new programs that they’re now creating to serve students,” said Amir Whitaker, senior policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

Pandemic winners

It wasn’t just technology companies that reaped massive paydays from districts flush with stimulus cash. Personal protective equipment vendors and businesses selling indoor air quality products got lots of deals. Firms touting COVID testing-related services also were in high demand.

In September 2021, San Diego Unified’s board ratified a no-bid contract with a firm called Responsive Partners LLC – which formed during the pandemic in April 2020 and lists a UPS drop box in Orange County as its address – to run a COVID testing program. The district amended the contract a few months later and the agreement – which runs through July 30 – is now worth up to $52 million.

The board ratified the initial agreement at a September board meeting with no discussion, a video of the meeting shows. The board approved the amended agreement in January, again, with no public discussion.

School officials say the contract was worth it for a district that’s had a particularly aggressive testing strategy to keep schools open – offering far more tests and testing sites than many other districts.

Curious spending but little oversight

The California Virtual Academies, a chain of nine charter schools across the state, were probably better positioned than most to weather the pandemic. They didn’t need to worry about social distancing or need to suddenly figure out how to teach remotely. That’s because they were already teaching students exclusively online.

So how did the virtual academies use the $18 million in COVID relief money they spent last year? Nearly two-thirds of it – $11 million – went to K12 Management Inc., a subsidiary of the publicly traded corporation that helps run the schools, according to records the schools provided to CalMatters in response to a records request. And while some of that money is listed as going to pay for computers and peripheral equipment for students, $8.6 million went to “student course materials” or “online curriculum” straight from the corporation, the records show.

The charters and their relationship to the parent corporation – Stride Inc., which was formerly known as K12 Inc. – have been the source of past legal problems. In 2016, following an investigation by the Bay Area News Group, the state attorney general’s office announced a $168.5 million settlement with K12 Inc. over allegations the company and schools misled parents to boost enrollment and inflated attendance numbers.

CalMatters spoke to several current or former staff at the virtual academies who worked during the pandemic. They said teachers and counselors were overwhelmed as enrollment grew and questioned why so much money went to the corporation.

In an email, the company told CalMatters that the state didn’t provide additional funding to cover the increased enrollment and that the corporation provides online curriculum, education materials, a learning management system and “a wealth of other items” for students and teachers.

Most districts and schools are facing little scrutiny for their pandemic spending decisions, outside local administrative offices and boardrooms. Last fiscal year, the state Education Department reviewed stimulus spending at 15 local educational agencies – less than a percent of the roughly 1,700 agencies that got stimulus funds. This year the department is reviewing 50.

Those reviews turned up numerous red flags, ranging from poor recordkeeping to outdated conflict-of-interest policies to outright misspending.

Hayward Unified, dinged by state monitors over stimulus spending in a review last year – has been able to resolve most of its findings without losing money. State reviewers identified six issues at the school in fiscal year 2020-21.

Still, it’s taken a long time for the district to prove to the state it didn’t mishandle money. Districts are supposed to resolve findings within 45 days. As of this month, it’s been more than a year, and one finding remains outstanding.

Hayward’s assistant superintendent of Business Services, Allan Garde, wrote in an email to CalMatters that the district has been busy trying to keep schools open and running, and expected to resolve the last of the outstanding issues by the end of this month.

The slow pace of resolution hints at the limits of state authority.

Click here to read the full article in the Mercury News

One-Year Contract Agreement Between S.F. Schools And Teachers Union Offers Up To $10,000 In Bonuses

Working under an expired contract, San Francisco teachers and administrators reached a one-year, stopgap deal late Friday as the district weathers a fiscal crisis.

The tentative contract would give teachers $4,000 in bonuses next year while increasing substitute pay up to $60 per day. The deal also includes a $3,000 bonus for Advanced Placement teachers and another $3,000 for teachers in hard-to-staff schools.

That means a teacher who qualifies for all three could see $10,000 in bonuses next year.

The agreement does not include ongoing raises, other than the guaranteed increases associated with years of experience and education levels, but does offer some immediate financial relief for educators, union officials said.

“Given all of the struggles educators have been through over the past two years, we are relieved that we could get one-time compensation directly to all members, as well as a much needed increase in substitute pay,” Cassondra Curiel, president of the United Educators of San Francisco, said in a joint statement with the district. “We are fighting for the schools our students deserve in a particularly challenging period. This is a step in the right direction.”

The previous teachers’ contract expired in July 2020.

The district is facing a $125 million shortfall next year, as well as a $140 million deficit the year after, leading to an appointed state expert to advise the district and review contract agreements. A staff raise would probably have been rejected by the expert.

“We are living through a moment in history with challenges we have never faced before, and educators continue to inspire us with their resilience and strength,” said Superintendent Vince Matthews. “We are extremely pleased to reach an agreement that supports our educators, our students and our communities.”

The agreement came on the same day the district sent letters to some teachers and other staff advising that they were on a list of people who could get preliminary layoff notices in March.

The school board has adopted a budget plan that is expected to cut $50 million from classrooms, in addition to reductions at the central office and among various programs.

That will include balancing classroom enrollment, to ensure teachers are spread evenly across the district, reducing the number of teachers required. Currently, some teachers have a handful of students, given lower enrollment than expected, while others at different schools have full seats. The school board voted in the fall against shifting teachers to address the disparities.

District officials have said there will probably be staff reductions, although the numbers could change dramatically before official notices go out May.

The tentative deal reached Friday requires approval and is subject to a vote of union members and the school board.

The agreement includes suspending teacher sabbaticals for a year to help mitigate teacher shortages, while also suspending an extra preparation period for Advanced Placement teachers. Those benefits are not standard items in teacher labor agreements and combined cost the district nearly $10 million per year.

The one-year pause on the extra preparation period is arguably the most controversial part of the agreement.

Click here to read the full article at the SF Chronicle

McCarthy, Foxx Demand Biden Ed Boss Cardona Turn Over Teacher Union Emails

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and House Education Committee ranking member Virginia Foxx sent a letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona Wednesday demanding copies of emails between his DOE, the White House and the teachers’ unions.

In the letter, obtained by Fox News, the Congressional Republican leaders blasted federal education officials for “radical spending” during the pandemic and accused them of mishandling school closures and billions of dollars of COVID-19 education relief.

“We noted Congress had already appropriated nearly three times the funding the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said was needed to operate schools successfully,” the Republicans wrote.

“Unfortunately, rather than continuing Congress’s bipartisan approach to addressing COVID-19, Democrats advanced their partisan agenda, approving more than $120 billion in additional funding for schools” in last year’s $1.9 billion American Rescue Plan COVID-19 relief bill.

McCarthy and Foxx wrote that Democrats argued “radical spending was necessary for schools to reopen safely for in-person instruction,” but said the claims were proven false by data that showed only 4 percent of the relief funds were used as the vast majority of US schools reopened in the fall, according to the report.

“Despite Democrats’ claims to the contrary, these funds were not needed to reopen schools,” the lawmakers reportedly wrote. “Because of this, some schools are grasping at any project they can find on which to waste these taxpayer funds, including indoctrinating students and staff with racist and divisive ideologies.”

As they accused the Education Department of misappropriating funds, McCarthy and Foxx also called the Biden administration’s handling of academic disruptions “appalling,” as “one million public school students across the country were impacted by district-wide school closures” as 2022 began.

Click here to read the full article at the NY Post

Bill banning ‘Redskins’ mascot heads to governor’s desk


As reported by the Merced Sun-Star:

A bill banning the use of the term “Redskins” as a mascot for public schools is headed to the California governor’s office after passing out of the state assembly Thursday.

Four schools in the state use the mascot: Gustine High in Merced County, Chowchilla High in Madera County, Calaveras High in Calaveras County, and Tulare Union in Tulare County.

Assembly Bill 30, the “California Racial Mascots Act,” on Thursday passed the state Assembly on 54-8 vote. The measure, authored by Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, would prohibit public schools from using the term for mascots, team names and nicknames.

“As the state with the largest Native American population in the country, we should not continue to allow a racial slur to be used by our public schools,” Alejo said Thursday in …

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Bill would cap large payouts to school superintendents

As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle:

SACRAMENTO — A California lawmaker wants to limit the generous — sometimes six-figure — payouts that school districts award school superintendents who leave their jobs.

Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, said the state needs to reduce the severance pay school districts — and ultimately taxpayers — give superintendents who are terminated or voluntarily leave before their contracts expire. School boards typically negotiate severance deals with superintendents that equal about 12 to 18 months worth of pay. The state already caps such cash settlements at 18 months.

But increasingly, school boards are approving 18 months of severance in superintendent and other high-level administrative contracts. One Bay Area school leader collected a $600,000 payout in 2013. …

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