The Inspector of Public Instruction is the only impartial 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 is afraid to get into the partisan battle.
As an inspector, Thurmond, who was elected in 2018 after serving a term in the California Assembly, is in line with Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom. He has promoted LGBTQ-inclusive books in school libraries amid battles against them in some Republican-led states; issued a statement in support of abortion rights after US Supreme Court Roe v. Wade had destroyed and sparked discussions about institutional racism after the police murder of George Floyd.
Christensen, director of education and government affairs at the conservative California Policy Center, has railed against Newsom, teacher unions, expanded sex education, critical race theory, and masks in schools during COVID-19. Unlike Thurmond, he opposes a November ballot to ensure access to abortion in the California constitution.
Christensen, who also has experience with the Capitol as a staffer to Republican lawmakers, said politics doesn’t matter in the race for head of state.
“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 really believe that parents own their children and have complete control over them, not some bureaucrat.”
Thurmond disagrees that politics doesn’t matter.
“I think he is carrying dangerous messages that would have a negative impact on many of our students. We must prevent young people from being trapped in these hateful messages,” Thurmond said of Christensen. “If you come attacking teachers like he’s done, attacking social groups, how is he going to build a coalition to support the important work that needs to be done?”
For Thurmond, who has had a tumultuous first term as Chief Inspector, Christensen’s politics could work in his favor.
Thurmond has support from the influential California Teachers Association and the California Democratic Party in a like-minded supermajority state. Those approvals come despite accusations of a toxic workplace and criticism for hiring an East Coast friend to lead a high-paying position in the Department of Education.
Thurmond’s team pointed to Christensen’s links to the Bradley Impact Fund as one reason why he should not be elected. According to his 700 forms, Christensen was paid $2,050 last year by the conservative organization, which has promoted baseless allegations of voter fraud in support of former President Donald Trump.
Christensen said it is “not relevant at all,” and while he is candid about his conservative views, he regrets the focus on his political stances that are not directly related to the operation of California’s K-12 schools and the success of the nearly 6 million students.
“Donald Trump has nothing to do with what I’m trying to achieve here, but because I have an ‘R’ after my name, they’re going to hit me with that,” Christensen said.
Unlike most states, the Inspector of Public Instruction in California is elected by voters rather than appointed by the governor.
The inspector oversees the California Department of Education, which employs more than 2,000 employees, and ensures that schools comply with a slew of policies, including how they spend state dollars.
But local school boards and state inspectors have a lot to say about 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 inspector of public education.
The SPI’s greatest strength is arguably the bully’s pulpit, as they can fight for the ear of the governor and lawmakers to influence policy and lead local districts.
If elected in November, Christensen said he will appoint a “lead attorney for parents” to influence education policy. He has also vowed to control the dollars of the state’s Ministry of Education to reduce “bureaucratic bloat”; overhauling what he calls archaic education code and giving even more authority to district superintendents in a state that already has pro-local control.
Thurmond, if re-elected, has vowed to ensure that every current preschool — more than 450,000 students — will be able to read in third grade by 2026. Currently, less than half of California third-graders read at a satisfactory level, according to the latest state test scores. Third grade is seen by educators as a crucial academic marker as students move from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.”
Thurmond also has goals to hire 10,000 new counselors in schools. He pointed to legislation he sponsored to secure funding in the latest state budget for programs targeting mental health professionals as one of his proudest achievements, citing the need for emotional support for young people.
“The most important thing a state inspector 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 execute policies and how you get revenue.”
Christensen sees Thurmond’s past as a state legislator not as an advantage, but as a disadvantage. Parents are tired of the status quo and lifelong politicians, he said.
“They all universally say it’s not acceptable,” Christensen said of parents he met on the campaign trail to discuss 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 spending committee to get him re-elected.
And since 2006, not a single Republican has been elected to government office in California.
But the establishment also has its drawbacks. 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 from day one that I would be blamed for all sorts of things I had no control over. But that’s okay, I’m very committed to helping young people succeed,” he said. “I don’t spend a lot of time trying to explain away. Ultimately, people have a right to be angry and we need to be very focused on that.”
Christensen believes voters care enough about Thurmond’s record 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 facing pandemic issues, unlike inspectors in other states.
Although Thurmond could have won the race in the June primaries if he had gathered enough votes, he failed to reach the required 50%, securing about 46%. Christensen came in second, with almost 12% of the vote.
This race of superintendent pales in comparison to the 2018 election, when Thurmond and fellow Democrat candidate Marshall Tuck dabbled in a tight-knit $60 million competition targeting charter schools.
Like Tuck, Christensen supports charter schools — his kids have attended them. Thurmond supported teacher unions in their fight against them, promoting a law signed in 2019 that curtailed regulations and standards for non-traditional public schools.
Christensen has repeatedly invited Thurmond to a public debate, but Thurmond has rejected those offers.
“He has an incredibly dangerous propaganda message that is harmful. I’m not going to give him a platform to spread that message and hurt our kids,” Thurmond said.
The election is November 8.