“When I think about the way my life began, I know it is no accident and I attribute it to a higher power.”
The words are those of State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, whose ascension to the post of the state’s top education official is no short of miraculous given the circumstances of his childhood, beginning with the passing of his mother when he was just six years old.
“I went from being a very young child in San Jose to moving to Philadelphia with a cousin I’d never met, who immediately became my mother figure,” Thurmond recalls. “She took me in sight unseen and my younger brother who was five and though she had no formal education, she insisted that education was the key.”
Thurmond would not only have to adapt to a new environment but to hard times as well.
“All my friends made fun of me for being on food stamps, free lunch —the whole ticket,” Thurmond recounts. “But as an adult, I realized the demographics of my neighborhood meant that everybody was on free lunch. We had government cheese delivered to my house and I remember it fondly now because we had something to eat and while we didn’t always have enough, there was never a time we didn’t have something. My great aunt Jean — who was the matriarch of our family— would often say God will provide. I didn’t understand that as a child, but God always did provide and continues to provide.”
Early on, he not only excelled at school, but was impassioned by it.
“I saw kids going to classes that looked like some kind of college prep and I’m like, I’m gonna be in that too,” he continued. “So, my cousin signs us up to be in a lottery for what they called the academic plus school— a public school where they only allow 50 kids into the program. Somehow my brother and I both ended up on that list and were bused from our all Black neighborhood into a school in a white neighborhood.
“My cousin to her credit, went to night school, got her associates degree and brought us to her graduation. Then she went to night school, got her bachelor’s and again, brought us to her graduation. I believe she was role modeling for us to have a college education.”
But his network of support expanded well beyond his cousin.
“There was the Black teacher who just said you are going to get this and stayed with me when I couldn’t figure out algebra until I got through,” he noted. “There were people in my faith community who would drive us to church and bring food to our house.”
Looking back, Thurmond believes it was the combination of education and his support network that accounted for how he was able to make it.
“I think about that in relation to today’s young people trying to overcome obstacles,” he says. “We’ve got to provide them with that education, and they need caring adults around them who support them every step of the way.
“I take this job very seriously because of my own circumstances,” he goes on. “I see it with urgency to try and help young people who are struggling and to prevent the younger kids from having to go through those struggles. That’s exactly why I chose this and it’s why I’m running for reelection because our families and kids have been through the most difficult experience ever— a pandemic, the killing of George Floyd, racial hate, —all these things we saw before our very eyes.
“We see a spike in depression for kids, suicide rates being double for Black kids. LGBTQ+ kids feel totally attacked because of what’s happening. Even with all these things happening, I still have hope for California kids. That’s what my platform for running is all about, to help kids heal from the trauma, recover academically and socially, and then allow them to thrive.”
It was in college that Thurmond first decided to run for office.
“My buddy kind of talked me into it,” Thurmond recalls, “and after getting elected, there were issues we were able to change and it’s like a light bulb went off.”
But it would be 20 years before he would put his name on another ballot in 2013 and launch a successful bid to represent the 15th District (Alameda County) in the California Assembly from 2014 – 2018.
“I loved serving in the California State Assembly and was reelected with 90% of the vote,” he states. “I made a choice to leave the assembly because I realized that my politics were about helping young people and that a job like state superintendent meant working on education every day, all the time.”
What he feels makes him uniquely qualified is due in part to the relationships he’s built with Governor Gavin Newsom and members of the legislature to access critical resources and what he has been able to accomplish since taking office in 2019.
Working with lawmakers in both the California Senate and Assembly, he is sponsoring and supporting a range of focused legislation that, if approved, would increase access to education opportunities and improve learning for Black, Hispanic and other children who were most affected by the pandemic.
“Our number one bill is Senate Bill (SB) 1229.” The bill, authored by Sen. Mike McGuire (D-North Coast), offers incentives to recruit 10,000 professionals to help support the growing mental health needs of students. SB 1229 provides $25,000 grants to aspiring mental health clinicians who commit to serving a minimum of two years as a mental health professional either in a school district or youth-serving community organization in high need areas.
Approximately eight million Californians, most of them from communities of color, live in areas with a shortage of behavioral health professionals.
“There’s no question that our students need all kinds of support for academic recovery, but our students and families need to really heal from the trauma that is this pandemic.” Thurmond said. “We’ve seen a spike in suicide for Black students; we’ve seen an increase in hospitalizations for young people.”
Addressing childhood literacy and biliteracy, is another of Thurmond’s priorities. Last year, he announced his vision that by 2026 all California students will be literate by third grade. He pulled together a Statewide Literacy Task Force of experts and community partners to design a strategy for reaching that goal. Also, to support the initiative, Thurmond pledged to secure one million book donations for students in need and he exceeded his goal with more than five million free online books downloaded.
Thurmond is sponsoring three bills focused on literacy expansion working with two legislators: Sen. Monique Limón (D-Santa Barbara) and Assemblymember Mia Bonta (D-Alameda). The first is Senate Bill (SB) 952 (Limón), written to help existing schools convert to dual-language immersion programs. The second, Assembly Bill (AB) 2498 (Bonta), would expand Freedom School programs — evidence-based Afrocentric literacy programs that have been shown to help students improve their reading by one to two grade levels in as little as six weeks. The third is AB 2465 (Bonta), which would expand literacy programs to fund home visits.
There are several other game-changing education bills Thurmond is sponsoring. Among them are SB 830, which Sen. Anthony J. Portantino (D-Thousand Oaks) introduced. The legislation calls for funding schools based on school district enrollment instead of attendance. It would also finance efforts to address chronic absenteeism and truancy.
According to Thurmond, “SB 830 gives districts predictability on how they receive funding and gives them important resources to address what has been one of our most perplexing challenges: dealing with chronic absenteeism in ways we have not yet seen before. It will put students and schools on a better path to further close opportunity and education gaps.”
With the funds included by Gov. Gavin Newsom in the state budget and passed by the Legislature, Thurmond is implementing a Universal Prekindergarten Planning & Implementation Grant program to expand prekindergarten for every four-year-old. The budget is covering a program serving two meals free of charge (breakfast and lunch) during each school day to students in grades K–12. Also budgeted is $3 Billion to establish community schools across the state that offer additional services to students and families.
Another of his priorities is Inglewood, which he has named as a partner district.
“Like Oakland, it has been saddled with debt from borrowing and sadly under Governor Pete Wilson, that debt got sold to a private entity,” Thurmond explains. “So, even if the state wanted to, it can’t excuse that debt. Instead, part of what I’m trying to do is to help Inglewood get money from the state of California to pay off that debt that is strangling the Inglewood Unified School District, a district that is trying to make the turn and show they can provide quality education.”
Presently, Thurmond is campaigning for a second term, which most believe he will win. Those campaigning against him for the post are openly critical of the 53-year-old leader of California schools for everything from prolonged classroom shutdowns and pandemic policies to hiring policies and turnover, while groups like the California Teachers Association praise him as a fierce advocate for public education.
“If people want to serve in this job, they have to understand you don’t have control over the thousand school districts in this state who are run locally with their own school boards.’ And”, he states emphatically, “they [speaking to his detractors] don’t have to like the choices I’ve made, but I would appreciate if they just recognize that we’ve been working nonstop to try and do the impossible under impossible circumstances.”
In the meantime, says Thurmond, “I’m always focusing on what’s the next level.”