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Tony Thurmond on Culture Wars in California Schools

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State Superintendent Tony Thurmond speaks during a renaming ceremony for Betty Reid Soskin Middle School in El Sobrante on Sept. 22, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

View the full episode transcript.

Tony Thurmond, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, joins Marisa and Guy Marzorati to discuss the transgender reporting policies roiling local school districts. Thurmond also discusses the family members who helped him through childhood loss, his path to state office and education in California during the pandemic.

Episode Transcript


Marisa Lagos: Hey everyone, from KQED Public Radio, this is Political Breakdown, I’m Marisa Lagos.

Guy Marzorati: And I’m Guy Marzorati, in for Scott Shafer and today on the Breakdown, we are sitting down with California’s top elected official on education. Tony Thurmond is the state superintendent of public instruction. He oversees the department directing and enforcing education laws in California.


Marisa Lagos: That’s right. Thurmond was first elected in 2018 to the position after several terms in the state legislature. He was at the helm of the department through the pandemic and its rocky aftermath. And now he’s making headlines, taking on conservative school boards, pushing policies related to transgender students. Superintendent Thurmond, thank you for coming in.

Tony Thurmond: Thanks for having me.

Marisa Lagos: Good to see you in person. So we want to talk a lot, you know, about your bio, and we do a lot of backward looking on the show. But we kind of want to start with current events and there’s a lot of bigger culture wars happening. But just this week in the Bay Area, as you probably know, we saw a really concrete example of the impact of the attention being paid to California by conservative groups. I’m talking about a bomb threat called into Chabot Elementary and Oakland, resulted in schools being, you know, canceled for the day, came after blowback when the school received for hosting a gathering specifically for kids and families of color. Broad brush strokes like what’s your reaction to that incident, the moment we’re in? You know, it feels like the return to school is really colliding with a lot of these culture wars in this moment.

Tony Thurmond: You know, it’s just heartbreaking that anyone would make bomb threats to students, elementary school students, babies, really, and their educators and families because they didn’t agree that the school is doing some things to affirm the diversity, the beautiful diversity that exists in our state. First and foremost, we are working with city officials and school officials to make sure that everyone is safe. But we will continue to have our message loud and clear that education plays a very key role in ending hate. And hate is spiking. But we think that we have to be the ones to show folks that we have beautiful diversity. We can work together, and that things like inclusive education actually help students to be more successful academically.

Guy Marzorati: Maybe the biggest issue — cultural issue roiling California schools right now is this policy transgender notification. This is a handful of school districts that are requiring teachers, requiring school staff to notify parents when their kids are expressing different gender identities than what the official records reflect. What do you see as kind of the greatest danger posed by this policy? And how is the state responding?

Tony Thurmond: You know, it’s it’s the fact that more than 40% of LGBTQ students in this country have said that they’ve considered suicide, that it’s often tied to lack of acceptance about their gender identity. Four out of ten kids who are homeless or runaway often are those who are pushed out of their homes or couldn’t be at home. They were rejected for, you know, for their gender identity. And so a policy like this puts students in such danger and harm’s way. That is mind boggling, that school board members who took an oath to defend the Constitution of the state and its participants would use such a mean spirited policy against them. We won’t stand for that. And, you know, we’ve been vocal on why we think that the law protects the privacy of students. And by the way, we also think that there, you know, are important parental rights that can be supported. But we don’t think that parental rights extends to putting students in harm’s way. We think these are conversations that should take place between families and their students, not forcing school district staff to be the ones who tell a parent about their children’s sexual identity.

Marisa Lagos: I mean, I can see folks who who see themselves as, you know, advocates or allies of the LGBT community saying, but parents should be involved. I mean, these are their kids like. And it also strikes me that we are talking about this with a really broad brush stroke. I mean, as somebody with kids in elementary school, there’s a big difference between a second grader and a 10th grader, right? So what do you say to that pushback that, like, you know, parents, these are their kids and and do you think we should be sort of differentiating some of these conversations around age, you know, ages and what’s appropriate at different age levels?

Tony Thurmond: Yeah, I think that, you know, the board majorities that are pushing these policies are spreading a false narrative to suggest that we don’t care about parent rights. Parents do have rights. I’m a parent. You know, my kids go to school in these schools and parents never should lose their rights and they’re not being asked to lose their rights. You know, parents have a right to, and have processes where they can give input on what’s in the curriculum taught in school. We create spaces for parents to be involved in every aspect of what their children are learning. These board majorities, though, they’re they’re bypassing these, you know, these places that we have set up for parents to give input. And they’re simply saying things like, “If a book mentions Harvey Milk, I don’t want my kids to even know who Harvey Milk is.” And that’s just wrong for someone who is was recognized with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and someone who’s recognized as a Navy service person, someone who, you know, made great strides for the city of San Francisco and and for the LGBTQ+ community in the world. Our notion is that students do better when they have information, when they can learn about individuals who, you know, reflect their background. But the research proves students do better. Students from all backgrounds do better when they have access to learning about other cultural experiences.

We should be clear what these board majorities are pushing. They’re calling it parent rights, But really what they’re doing is pushing a political agenda. This is the MAGA political agenda that they are seeking to attack the LGBTQ+ community and kids of color and look at what it has produced. We had a shop owner killed just a few weeks ago who hung a pride flag we had over the weekend as we mark the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, we had someone kill people because he said he hated African-Americans. He made anti-Semitic remarks. We are at a moment in time when there are these acts of hate that are rising and these board majorities are playing off of that to drive hate. Now they’re driving violence from their policies. And I’ve made an overture to them. If they want to talk about parent rights, let’s work together to find a balance of supporting parent rights in a way that maintains the safety of students in our communities.

Guy Marzorati: So what is that balance, then? And I mean, and how do you approach this as a parent? You know, if your kids were grappling with these issues of gender expression in school, what would you want to see from their teachers? And is there a better way, I guess, to facilitate these conversations?

Tony Thurmond: You know, I recently had someone tell me he’s an adult and he told me that when he came out as a gay man, that, you know, it was one of his teachers who he went to, who he spoke with, who helped him as someone who was compassionate, who was a guide, who helped him connect with resources. You know, these policies take away one of the most important allies that students have at school, and it forces them to be in an adversarial position. You know, it really is —

Guy Marzorati: Putting teachers kind of in the middle

Tony Thurmond: Absolutely. And saying that you have to essentially out someone or, you know, and turning it into something negative and to tell on someone, you know, telling your parents that you are gay, lesbian, transgender, these are difficult conversations even in the best households. You know, why would we create adversarial situations? What these broad majority should be doing is finding ways to give parents the resources and the tools to have the hard conversations with their kids. Talking about anything with your kids can be difficult. And I’m suggesting that these board majorities are more concerned about making a political statement than what’s good for kids.

They’re banning critical race theory. No school in California teaches critical race theory. So they’re sending a message to kids of color, we don’t want you here in the kids who are who are impacted are telling me they feel that way. I ended up at the school district in Chino Valley because students told me they felt unsafe because of how board members were treating them, threatening them on social media. I saw it for myself firsthand in a board chamber where Proud Boys were threatening me just for standing up for students. But I’ll take that, and I’ll stand up for students every single time.

Marisa Lagos: You know, this has turned into a political fight. We’re seeing ballot measures being written, as you mentioned, school board members being elected on a lot of this. And it does seem like a pretty highly organized campaign. In California, you see one pastor in particular who’s, you know, I think helped sort of push and draft some of these measures. Do you feel like Democrats were caught off guard by all of this?

Tony Thurmond: I think the short answer is yes. Right? This is a scripted playbook, is a nationally driven playbook by groups that have been losing at the ballot box in congressional races in the White House and in state legislatures. And they’ve made a decision that they’re going to wage war at the local level, at the school district level and the school board. And so Democrats and progressives and others need to come back with ways to counter this. But I’ve seen data that shows that there are many who don’t agree with what these board majorities are pushing. Even some Republicans and conservatives have said this is not where the focus should be.

I would like to challenge those at some of these school board majorities rather than using these political measures to, you know, literally oppress their kids. They should be focusing on things like improving chronic absenteeism. You know, the school district in Chino Valley has a very high rate of chronic absenteeism. We know what that means for kids. And I’ve been contacted by parents in the district who’ve told me about gang fights, racially targeted tension in the schools. They should be working on those things, and I’d like to help them.

You know, I reached out to the board president to talk about these issues. You saw what happened in the board meeting. I spoke by one minute. They threw me out with security and police surrounding me that let me know that they didn’t want to talk about issues. They just want to push a political agenda. I’m saying right now, I’m ready to help them, you know, make sure their kids have the resources to learn how to read, improve their chronic absenteeism rates, make sure their kids are ready for the jobs of tomorrow, and help them with intervention programs to address gangs and violence that are running rampant in some of their schools.

Guy Marzorati: So you mentioned those conversations, but you also said the word “counter.” What is, I guess, the political response to this both right now, on the ballot in 2024 —

Marisa Lagos: We’ve got two more weeks in this legislative session.

Guy Marzorati: Yeah and then the legislative session. I mean you’ve written a bill in your time, or two —

Tony Thurmond: Quite a few.

Guy Marzorati: Should we expect anything in the next couple of weeks?

Tony Thurmond: I think that there are bills going forward right now. I’ve helped to write a bill, AB 1078. This is a bill that says that our schools cannot ban books in the attempts to discriminate against LGBTQ+ kids or kids of color. If you ban a book, you will pay a fee to mitigate the impacts of that ban. What I would tell your listeners is please pay attention to what people put in front of you. This ballot measure will have misleading language. It’ll make it sound like “we are here to affirm parent rights.” But what they’re really trying to do is take away the right of students to be safe, to explore their gender identity. And so I just think it’s important that parents look out for these ballot measures. You know, be informed. Don’t allow yourselves to be confused. Every one of the bills that has been introduced in the legislature to try and counter these attacks on students — these board majorities and the pastors that you mentioned, they have rallies and they make up names and make it sound like what they’re doing is really intended to help someone. But really, it’s intended to hurt someone and it’s dangerous. I mean, literally, lives have been lost over these discussions.

And what’s the message that they’re sending to kids at that school board meeting? I watch person after person after person be thrown out for offering a different view. I thought I was in a reality TV show format. You know, it was knock down, drag out. You’re out of here. You know, that’s not how our school board meetings are supposed to be run. We should be role modeling for our young people that we can use civility even when we disagree. We can agree to disagree. We don’t need to be disagreeable to anyone. And sadly, what we’re seeing is that the tenor that the school board mark majorities are sending is contributing to direct violence.

Marisa Lagos: All right. We are going to take a short break. When we come back, we’re continuing our conversation with California’s superintendent of public instruction, Tony Thurmond. You’re listening to Political Breakdown from KQED Public Radio.

Marisa Lagos: Welcome back to Politico Breakdown. I’m Marisa Lagos here today with Guy Marzorati and California’s superintendent of public instruction, Tony Thurmond. All right, well, we want to go back to the beginning. Talk a little bit about how you ended up in this role. You were born at Ford Ord in Monterey, and I know you spent some time in San Jose. Tell us a little bit about your early years. I think it was the first six years with your mom was pretty good.

Tony Thurmond: That’s right. Yeah. You know, I’m the son of immigrants. You know, my mom was born in Panama. She came to the U.S., became a teacher in San Jose. My dad was a Vietnam vet who I met for the first time when I found him on the Internet around the time of my 40th birthday. He served in Vietnam. He didn’t return to our family. And so my mom raised four kids by herself in San Jose, and we were all together until she got too sick to take care of us. And my mom had cancer and when I was six, she passed away. And so the siblings got split up. I saw two of them maybe once in a ten year period. My five year old brother and I got sent to live in Philadelphia to be raised by a cousin who we never met until we showed up on her doorstep.

Marisa Lagos: Wow.

Tony Thurmond: She too, an immigrant. Someone who didn’t have a formal education. She took us in. You know, we struggled all the time. We didn’t have food in the household sometimes. I grew up on the free lunch program, you know, food stamps and government. You know I ate so much government cheese, I thought that USDA was a brand name sometime. But for us, these were programs to help my family to overcome poverty. The most important public program to overcome poverty was getting an education. It changed my life. I became a social worker. I work with foster youth, young people coming out of the criminal justice system. And then the last 15 years, I’ve been city council, school board member, state legislator, state superintendent. And it’s just been an honor to serve the people of the state.

Guy Marzorati: Well, tell us about that, cousin. I don’t know. Other family members, friends, teachers, people in the faith community, like who are the people kind of lifting you up, keeping you afloat at that time?

Tony Thurmond: All of them. You know, my cousin, you know, I like to say that my mom gave me life and my cousin gave me a life. You know, she she really worked hard to make sure that we know that education could be for us and could you know, we got to go to great public schools. And she fought hard to make sure that we had everything that we needed. And she worked two jobs, went to night school. She got her degree. When she graduated, she had us there. You know, to see that through hard work, you can get an education and change the course of your life.

My teachers were the same. They set a high bar and they were sending a message. It may not have been in these words, but their message was like the promise of education will help you have better circumstances than the circumstances you had when your life started. And they were making a promise that came true. And it’s the message that I deliver to young people today. Education will carry you ever you want to go, but you have to have mentors along the way. You know, as a kid, when we went to when we went to church, we know we walked 45 minutes each way.

Guy Marzorati: Uphill both ways?

Tony Thurmond: Uphill both ways, in the snow. No shoes, literally in the snow. No. But the pastor in his family made sure that we had food and a meal and sometimes a ride home. I was given opportunities in my community of worship to do public speaking, to welcome the guests, to sing in the choir, to organize a junior choir. These things helped me to come out of my quiet, shy shell and to find my voice. Countless mentors in my life, countless caring adults who were pouring into me and saying, “Your life will be better than it started.” Education certainly at the center of that. But there’s nothing more important than having those great mentors in education. You put all that together and it meant a better experience for me, and it has driven my decision to enter in the public service.

Marisa Lagos: Well before we get to that, you went to Temple University

Tony Thurmond: Go Owls!

Marisa Lagos: And you ran for what?

Tony Thurmond: Student body president.

Guy Marzorati: John Cheney years.

Marisa Lagos: What was your slogan? What was your platform? These were early political days.

Tony Thurmond: It was. You’re going to love this, my roommate in college wanted to be student body president, and he asked me to run as his vice president. I really wasn’t interested, but I was like, all right. And we won. And then I started to see how you could use government and politics to make a difference. We focused heavily on more funding in higher education. We asked our university to divest from the South African government at that time because it was a time when black South Africans did not have a vote or a voice. Seeing our university divest, it really like triggered some thoughts from me that maybe I’d have a career one day in politics. My slogan when I ran to become student body president and when I was elected: “Unity in diversity.” And it’s a message that I would use today with all this turmoil that we have. We have to recognize the diversity that we have, but see that we also have a lot of unity.

Marisa Lagos: That’s impressive you already kind of had the political speech down.

Tony Thurmond: I mean, thank you. I don’t know that I had it all plotted out like that, but I’m sad that 30, 40 years later, we’re still having the same conversations. And I believe that most Californians want more. We can do more and and we can do more together. But it was a great experience. It opened up my eyes to the possibility of politics as a way to make change. Before I ever put my name on a ballot, I was a social worker and I spent 20 years first as a social worker, and then I ran. And I’m trying to bring those same social work values of making change to politics.

And I’m grateful that we’ve been able to get a lot done. We’ve got, you know, universal preschool for every three and four year old, universal meals for every hungry student in our state. We secured the funding to recruit 10,000 counselors to help our kids who’ve been through depression and anxiety. And so I’m just really thrilled and grateful that we’ve been able to have these accomplishments and we can do great things for students and their families here in the state of California.

Guy Marzorati: And yet you have some people say, do we even need a state superintendent of public instruction? They say, we have a president of the state board of ed, what’s the case, I guess, you’ve made through your work that this is a vital position? And would you suggest, now in your second term, any changes to the job?

Tony Thurmond: Well, I think we should give the state superintendent more direct ability to affect what happens in education. You know, we have a relationship to help 1000 school districts and they each have their own school boards. And so, yeah, we have local control and I value that. I was a school board member and all the bad decisions that got passed down to our local board are the reasons why I ran for the state legislature in the first place. But we should give the state superintendent more budget authority to be able to move programs in the state.

What I’ve done, because of the absence of that power and authority to do those things, I’ve used, you know, the microphone that this job gives me to sponsor legislation to get things done. This year, I sponsored 20 bills in the legislature. Many of them already have been signed into law that are going to allow us to provide more resources to kids who have dyslexia. We have more resources to bring retired teachers back into the classroom. We have a major shortage in this state, so I’ve had to be more creative in how I do my work. I work very closely with our governor and with our legislature to get things done, like the $6 billion that I helped to secure, to have more Internet access for our students. Our students don’t need hotspots. They need access to top technology so they’re ready for the jobs of tomorrow in STEAM, in computer science. You know, we need folks who are ready to, you know, teach in our classes. I’m offering a $20,000 scholarship to anybody who wants to become a teacher in California, who wants to become a mental health clinician in our schools. Just give me a call, 1-800-GET AT ME and I got your scholarship right here or at the other number or other email teachinCA@cde.ca.gov, if you will. That shameless plug.

Marisa Lagos: That’s a first. It’s usually a campaign website. So we’ll take we’ll take the CDE website and I wanna talk a little about the pandemic, but I also want to ask something. There have been questions raised in the media about your management style. Some former employees claiming a toxic work culture, saying you don’t allow staff to disagree with you. I’m curious about your response, but also like how do you just describe your management style?

Tony Thurmond: You know, my management style is very participatory. I ask people what they think, you know, I want to get the best ideas. And I’ve always believed that the way you get there is you hire the smartest people and you bring teams together to answer questions. And all those bills that I talked to you about, I pull together local superintendents, school board members, people with expertise to help us design solutions to the challenges that we have.

It’s very painful to hear people say the things that they’ve said. And I’ll just say that it’s just flat out untrue. And I’ll say at the same time, I’m someone who’s driving to make change. If you ask me to go slow while we have 200,000 homeless students, while we have students who are struggling to read or do basic math, I’m going to be honest. I’m always going to push to say we must do more and we must do better by our students. But I listen to all voices. I’m grateful for the staff that we have. We have 2000 staff members at the California Department of Education. I’m proud to lead them and to work with them. And anybody who has a question about my management style, you know, don’t just take my answers for it. Talk to the people on my executive team, some of the most talented leaders anywhere, some of the most diverse leaders anywhere. Very thoughtful people who are working together to do great things for our six million students.

Guy Marzorati: Well, COVID certainly upended public education during your time as state superintendent. I want to ask you specifically about a vote that the legislature and Governor Newsom, through the budget, took in the summer of 2020 to allow local school districts a really great deal of flexibility when it came to allowing for distance learning. Was that a mistake, given how we saw things play out in the 2020-2021 school year in places like San Francisco? Was that a mistake to give school districts so much leeway over distance learning and in many cases opting not to reopen schools?

Tony Thurmond: I would say that the biggest challenge that we had started immediately when the pandemic began and we learned that there were a million students in our state without a computer or access to high speed Internet. How could that be? In a state with Silicon Valley and all the technological advances that we have in this state? And so I literally went out and got donations to get computers to kids. We got a million computers and a million hotspots for students. And then I sponsored a bill that helped us to get $6 billion for broadband in our state. I basically got commitments out of all of the Internet service providers to provide low cost Internet, $15 a month. You know, we should never be in a position again where our students are affected by this digital divide. And of course, that has created learning gaps for our students. And we’re working through those learning gaps. But I’ll just tell you, California is better position than any other state in the nation to help our students recover from those learning gaps.

And here’s the thing, say what you want about California schools. I wish we had the hindsight to know what the impacts of COVID would be, but a million people lost their lives during COVID. Our first move was to listen to the public health folks. How do we keep kids safe? And at the same time, how do we find a way to get them, you know, a great education? Now, look, I’m a person who likes to be in-person with other people. I would say most of us, it’s our nature. We don’t want to be isolated. But during a pandemic, a worldwide pandemic, what choice do we have but to use distance learning. And if we had the resources and tools, maybe our students would have had a better experience. But the reality is, is that all across this nation, students in every state, even those that opened sooner than California school students, experience learning gaps.

Marisa Lagos: But to be fair, I mean, we look at like math proficiency. It did fall here more than the national average. We’re running out of time. But who do you feel like is accountable for that? Is it at the local level? Is there you know, was there a bigger role the state could have played?

Tony Thurmond: I hope we have more time to to go through it all. You know, it’s a complex web of things. And I think the reality is that the pandemic upended all of our lives. Hundreds of thousands of kids have lost a parent and in some cases more than one parent. And that’s just the reality. And this state has done more than most to address that. But in a state with local control, there is no one button to push to say all schools come back at the same time. I certainly don’t have it within my office to do. If I did, I’d be happy to use it.

Guy Marzorati: You would have.

Tony Thurmond: I’d be happy to use it. I think it’s easy to point, to blame. And if people want to push blame in my direction, I’ll accept that. But I’m more interested in what’s the solution? This is where we are for students everywhere in the nation. What’s the solution? I’m not going to sit here and rest of my laurels, but I’ll tell you, I’ve secured funding to allow us to recruit 10,000 mental health clinicians to help our kids. I’ve been able to get $500 million to make sure we have reading coaches in the schools that have the highest needs around literacy. If you look at where we were before the pandemic, there were deficiencies that got worse in the pandemic. We’re focused now on how we get better in the state of California.

Marisa Lagos: That is state superintendent of public Instruction Tony Thurmond. Thanks for your time today.

Guy Marzorati: Appreciate it.

Marisa Lagos: That’s going to do it for this edition of Political Breakdown, a production of KQED Public Radio.

Guy Marzorati: I’m Guy Marzorati, our engineer today is Christopher Beale.


Marisa Lagos: And I’m Marisa Lagos, we’ll see you next time.

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