Yet the top two candidates and their supporters have already pulled in over $15 million — more than any race but the governor's.
Teachers' Union vs the Charters
The dynamic is familiar: It pits the teachers’ union, The California Teachers Association, against a self-styled education reformer with pro-charter school backers.
The state superintendent position doesn't carry the policy-making might of legislators or the State Board of Education, nor the budget-shaping power of the governor, but as head of the Department of Education, the superintendent determines how education policies are carried out, doles out money to districts and ensures they’re following the law.
The job also gives the person who holds it a megaphone to highlight certain issues, or influence policy.
Marshall Tuck is pitching himself as the guy who wants to shake things up.
“We need real change,” he says. “The status quo in our public schools is not working. California has built massive bureaucracy around public education and it's taken the creativity and innovation out of our schools."
Tuck ran four years ago and narrowly lost to current Superintendent Tom Torlakson in a runoff that led to some $25 million in spending.
So far, Tuck and his supporters have raised over $10 million dollars: The campaign received close to $3 million in direct campaign contributions, and independent expenditure committees spent over $7 million on his behalf.
His primary competitor, Tony Thurmond, is a state lawmaker with the teachers' union behind him.
"I want to be the kind of superintendent who helps to use the relationships that I have with legislators, in the governor's office to really move more resources to our school districts and to make sure that we lift up those best practices that will close our achievement gap," he says.
Thurmond and his supporters have raised more than $5 million taking in close to $2 million in direct contributions. Independent expenditure committees spent over $3 million on his behalf.
The position is nonpartisan, but both leading candidates are Democrats. Thurmond represents parts of the East Bay in the State Assembly. He used to be a Richmond city council member, school board member and social worker. He grew up poor and credits public education for saving his life.
Two Very Different Backgrounds, A Lot in Common
Marshall Tuck has a background in management. He helped found the charter network Green Dot Public Schools in Los Angeles and ran it. He later helped create and run The Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a nonprofit that works to improve underserved LA Unified schools. He started out in the world of finance after college, then says he found his passion in education.
While the two differ markedly in their backgrounds, the distinctions in their visions are more subtle. Tuck emphasizes innovation, collaboration and the reform of some teacher protections, like tenure laws. Thurmond highlights his personal connection to public schools, presenting himself as a champion for vulnerable students, and the defender of the state against the assaults of the federal government.
The differences show up in their views on charter schools. Both Tuck and Thurmond say they want to make for-profit charters illegal and both call for greater accountability and transparency of public charter schools.
But while Thurmond stresses a “crisis of accountability” and calls himself the only candidate who is "fully committed to reforming charter schools," Tuck describes charters as important partners in public education.
“It is our neediest that have been hurt the most by underperforming schools," Tuck's plan reads, "and we should support quality public charter schools that can give our highest-need families an additional public school opportunity.” He emphasizes focusing on how charters can collaborate with and support traditional public schools.
Both Tuck and Thurmond oppose private school vouchers.
When it comes to work rules, Tuck has a lot to say, while Thurmond's plan doesn't touch on the issue. Tuck calls for reform of the state’s teacher dismissal process, arguing it’s too difficult to get rid of teachers who perform poorly or engage in misconduct. He also wants to see changes to the tenure process in California, which currently allows teachers to be tenured after two years. The law has been challenged in court and upheld.
“We need to give our teachers and schools more time before making such consequential decisions,” Tuck’s plan reads. “Neither the teacher nor the student is served by having to make such a high-stakes decision after such a short period of time.”
Tuck has said he supports extending the probationary period to four years; Thurmond has said he would support upping it to three, though he has sided with the teachers union in laying out what that might look like.
Under current law, seniority largely determines layoffs for teachers. Tuck wants districts to have more flexibility, and be able to consider other factors when layoffs are necessary.
Tuck also emphasizes paring down regulations he sees as stifling creativity. He calls the California Education Code “overly prescriptive” and says he wants to build on the Local Control Funding Formula to gain greater flexibility from the ed code. In the short term, he aims to help districts get waivers from the code.
Thurmond says any incoming superintendent should review the rules, and he calls for flexibility in curriculum, but likens Tuck's critique of the educational code to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' attitude toward regulations.
"The result has been the rollback of protections and rights for disabled students, sexual assault survivors, transgender students and student loan borrowers," Thurmond says. "Because it’s a cheap way to score political points with voters on the right."
Stanford-based education policy expert David Plank says the most significant difference between the two doesn't show up in their plans for the state.
“They themselves are not very far apart," Plank says. "They have very different friends. The friends of one are the enemies of the other and vice versa, so the political contest gives the impression that the stakes are larger than they are.”
Thurmond has the support of the state's major unions, the California Democratic Party, which has put over $500,000 behind him, and Senator Kamala Harris and Congresswoman Barbara Lee. The California Teachers Association has pumped over $2 million into his campaign.
Tuck has the Association of School Administrators and California Charter School Association behind him. His biggest fundraiser, The Ed Voice for the Kids PAC, got major contributions from billionaire charter advocates Arthur Rock, Eli Broad and the Walton family.
California Teachers Association president Eric Heins is quick to take issue with these supporters, arguing they represent the interests of the few.
"It's clear that we have a very unaccountable industry that is almost completely unregulated," Heins says of charter schools, "and that's draining money from our public school system that actually needs it the most."
Heins also says Thurmond's track record lines up with voter's values.
For Tuck supporter Ben Austin, a former member of the State Board of Education and former consultant for Tuck's Green Dot Public Schools, Heins and his union colleagues are a big problem. He argues these backers hem Thurmond in.
"He doesn't have the political latitude to stand up for kids because he's funded by very powerful adult special interests whose interests sometimes clash with the interests of kids," Austin says."You can guess who wins when when that happens."
At a recent forum hosted by EdSource, both candidates decried the influence of outside money in politics and vowed, if elected, to operate beyond the influence of their bankrollers.
Despite the clash between their supporters, Tuck and Thurmond have a lot in common. Both say they want to increase teacher pay and provide more mentoring and coaching opportunities for new teachers. Tuck advocates free college and credentialing for anyone who commits to teaching for five years and higher pay for school employees who work in high-needs communities, while Thurmond says he’d like to make college cheaper for future teachers, streamline the credentialing process and provide affordable housing.
Both prioritize boosting per-pupil funding for the state’s public schools. Thurmond touts a plan to bring California into the top 10 states in per-pupil funding by 2022, and to number one in the nation by 2026. Like Tuck, he aims to steer money away from prisons into schools, and make it easier to pass local school taxes and fight cuts to federal funding.
Both men say they’ll work towards universal pre-K in the state, and want to see schools act as community hubs, providing healthcare services to those who need them. Both are calling for greater funding for special education and expanded bilingual education.
Both herald the Local Control Funding Formula as an important step toward equity in the state, but say they want to see greater transparency, in the form of public data, and more accountability.
Thurmond has called for a thorough review of the LCFF to “ensure that funding is spent as efficiently and effectively as possible.” Meanwhile Tuck is advocating what he calls a “school equity audit” — a sprawling review not only of how districts allocate funding, but of teacher experience and turnover, access to college prep classes, learning time, and arts and music curriculum.
Two other candidates for the post are on the ballot, but neither has mounted a significant campaign. They are Lily Ploski and Steven Ireland.
If no candidate gets a majority of the votes in next month’s primary, there will be a runoff in November.