An intimate conversation with California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond.
Tony Thurmond has a big job. Elected California’s state superintendent of public instruction in 2018, Thurmond is responsible for one of the largest public school systems in the country, with more than 6 million students and 10,000 schools. And he is serving in the middle of a pandemic in which teaching and learning have been turned upside down. If anyone is up for the challenge it’s Thurmond, who makes a habit of beating the odds. His mother — an immigrant from Panama — died when he was 6 years old. He didn’t meet his father until he was an adult. He graduated from Temple University (where he was student body president), then earned dual master’s degrees from Bryn Mawr College. Before being elected superintendent, Thurmond served in local government in the East Bay and four years in the State Assembly. I caught up with the superintendent at our annual Bay Scholars luncheon in November. His optimism, candid assessment of the challenges our kids face and passion for the transformative power of education is infectious. Meet Tony Thurmond.
You’ve had some real challenges in your childhood. What kept you motivated? Did you have mentors along the way? Oh, I’ve had plenty and I still do. Education has been everything in my life. That’s really the narrative that I try to share with other young people. A lot of them come from similar neighborhoods and backgrounds as me. I grew up on the free lunch program, food stamps and government cheese. I lost my mom at an early age — she had cancer and passed when I was 6 — and my dad was still trying to get back from being in Vietnam. We struggled, but one of the constants in my life was mentors — education and faith leaders — people who told me that my life would be better than it started, and they were absolutely right.
You’ve held a number of public offices and you’ve been successful at all of them. What appealed to you about the Office of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction? The truth is I didn’t know anything about it. I was enjoying my service in the State Assembly. If you look at my service record, though, most of what I did in the legislature was focused on young people. When I learned that there might be an opportunity to serve on education issues and youth issues all the time, I thought, “That’s for me.” I started out really early and the journey took me two years. I’m grateful to the 5 million people who voted me into this office to give me a chance to serve 6 million students in the state. It’s an honor. It’s truly an honor.
Let’s talk about learning in the pandemic. The majority of our students are still studying remotely. How does the state ensure that each child in California gets a quality education while we’re in this stay-at-home and remote-learning mode? It’s really tough, but we have to do what’s necessary to keep our students safe. … Now, that starts with having the tools, right? The pandemic has taught us a million students in our state don’t have access to high-speed internet. So I’ve started a task force on closing the digital divide, and we’ve been able to secure donations and new investments to help bring high-speed internet to the state. At the end of the day, we need more and new infrastructure to create more broad-band, and that’s going to allow students from all backgrounds and all schools to be able to fully engage. That’s just the start. We’ve got to do more around teacher training. We have to do more to support every single family. We have to make equity a priority for all of our students, and make sure we’re supporting the educators and families of our students.
You talk a lot about the digital divide. Has the pandemic exacerbated that divide, or actually reduced it because districts and schools were forced to move quickly to ensure that kids had the tools to learn remotely? Probably a little bit of both, right? I mean, you said it, we went into distance learning overnight without a playbook for how to do that. This is not how education was built, but out of necessity for safety, we’ve done this. I think it put a spotlight on an embarrassing secret that’s been covered up, that some folks have access to great resources, and many don’t have access to what they need. We’re in this situation and we’re going to use the momentum to close the digital divide once and for all. In that respect, I think it gives us a sense of urgency to push forward and to finally make sure that every student has a computer, that people get training on how to use them and that everyone has access to high-speed internet.
Realistically, how long is something like that going to take and how much is it going to cost? Is it coming from state dollars, federal dollars, philanthropy? You’re going to get sticker shock when I tell you this is really something that’s in the billions, but when we make the investment, it will pay dividends for a long time. If you look at the infrastructure that’s needed in rural parts of the state that don’t have access to broadband, some estimate that’s about a $4 billion equation to make that happen. Now we’re working with internet service providers to make sure that students anywhere can get access to low-cost internet. … But we’re going to need help from the federal government.
If you had a magic wand and you could reimagine California’s public school system, what would it look like and how do we get there? Obviously, I would make sure everyone had a computer and high-speed internet. No questions asked; everyone would get one. I’d put a focus on teacher recruitment and retention and figure out away to pay teachers better. I would make sure that there’s more money for students to be able to afford to go to college. Right now, our students probably take out more loans than at any time in history. We have students who are in college who are homeless, who experience food insecurity. … They need more than money for just books and tuition. I would use that magic wand to make sure we could support all our students and their families.
You and I both have the honor of serving on the UC Board of Regents, and I know we are both very proud that the UCs educate more first-generation and low-income students than the entire Ivy League combined. Almost 40 percent of our students at the UCs are low income. But our student body still doesn’t reflect the great diversity of the state of California. How can we get more underrepresented kids into our colleges and universities? I think it’s really the question of our time. Statewide, our student body is upward of 70 percent students of color, but when you look at enrollment in our UCs and some of our other systems, you often don’t see that. So, we’ve got to figure out what the barriers are that get in the way. Many students from low-income backgrounds and students of color who already qualify are on track to meet the requirements to enter the UC in their junior year of high school. They ultimately end up applying to go someplace else, so I think we have to do a kind of recruitment and outreach to make them feel like the UCs are a place for them. The same for the CSU, the same for any of our institutions in California. I think we have to send the message that we care about equity, we care about diversity, and we have to have that same diversity in our faculty at the UC.
Are you surprised that Prop 16, which would have reinstated affirmative action, didn’t pass in this past election? Do you think it would have helped to diversify our universities? There’s no question that Prop 16 would have helped. I think that there’s just a lot of misperception about what Prop 16 would have done. All it said was, “Create access and opportunities, and remove barriers for students of color, for women and for small-business people.” I think some people thought it would create winners and losers instead of seeing it as a way to create equity and to allow everyone to be a winner.I think California can do better, so I think we need a policy shift like what Prop 16 represented. We’re missing out on tremendous diversity.
What message do you have for students, especially students who may be struggling right now? I would just start by telling [them] how proud I am of them, especially those who are first generation or who come from low-income backgrounds and are overcoming barriers. If nothing else, I would just tell them that my experience is an example that you can come from humble beginnings and an education can really change your life. Get that education, a home, a car, the ability to support your family, and to be fulfilled in what you do. I love everything I get to do. I’m the descendant of slaves and immigrants, and no one in my family ever served in any elected office, but I feel like I’m standing on their shoulders and those of many who’ve immigrated here. I would tell them to dream big and to go out there and to achieve it. Stay focused and be around positive mentors and caring adults who will always support you no matter what.