State Superintendent Candidate Marshall Tuck Says CA Has 'Accepted Mediocrity And Failure' For Too Long

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Speak UP recently sat down with Marshall Tuck, a candidate for State Superintendent of Public Instruction, to discuss the state of education in CA, teacher tenure laws, ways to improve low-performing schools and what role parents play in education policy. This is part one of our two-part interview. To read part two, click here. Speak UP has also reached out to Tuck's main opponent but has not yet been able to schedule an interview. The primary election is June 5.

Speak UP: You're running for State Superintendent Public Instruction. Can you give us a brief explanation of what the job is and why parents should care about it?

Marshall Tuck: I'm a parent of a child in a public school. My son Mason is six, and he goes to Beethoven Elementary School in Los Angeles. When I think about his school, there's so many decisions that actually impact his classroom and his school that come from Sacramento, and very few parents actually know this. How much money we're going to spend on our children in public education is decided in Sacramento. What our kids are actually going to learn, what curriculum they can use, what flexibility the teachers and principals have, that comes from Sacramento.

We're the wealthiest state in the nation and yet we're 41st in per pupil funding. If you want that to change we actually have to elect people that are going to drive that change, and I think it should start with a State Superintendent, because the State Superintendent is the only elected official whose job is to wake up every day and fight for the 6.2 million kids that depend on public schools for their futures.

So this job [is] helping to create policy with the Governor and the Legislature, and also runs the California Department of Education, which is a 2500-person $350 million bureaucracy in Sacramento, whose job should be to be helping school districts best support kid, [but] far too often is creating kind of bureaucracy and regulation, which often can make it harder for teachers and principals at school sites to be creative.

Speak UP: Yeah, and you mentioned the Legislature and the Governor and obviously they're passing the laws that the California Department of Education interprets?

Marshall: Yeah. There's a huge interpretation component of this job. One example most recently, which has huge implications for our highest-poverty kids, is when Governor Brown passed what's called Local Control Funding Formula, which basically said more funds go to the highest-poverty students. The school district asked the State Superintendent, "Well what does that mean? Can we use all these funds for across the board raises, even if those raises don't impact kids that are in high poverty?" And the State Superintendent's interpretation was, "Yes you can."

Now I'm a big believer that all teachers need to get paid more, but with that one interpretation, it meant that a lot of money that was meant to go to classrooms with high-poverty kids actually didn't. Literally billions of dollars. And so when people think about, "Hey, why does this position matter?" I mean it literally has the ability to shift, in this case, billions of dollars of resources to make sure our kids are getting the support they need.

Speak UP: Can you talk about the state of education in California today?

Marshall: I really believe in the California dream and the idea that we should be leading the country and the world, but on education we're amongst the lowest performers. Our fourth graders rank 48th in reading in the country, and we're 49th in math and tied for last in science. We're literally last in science, the state that has the technology capitol of the world. So we've got a long way to go to improve our schools. Our state needs real change in our public schools. We've accepted mediocrity and failure for a very long time, regardless of the consequences on our kids, and the consequences are real.  

Speak UP: Where are you from and how did you first get interested in education?

Marshall: I'm a California kid. I was born in the Bay Area. I went to San Mateo High School. I was raised in an Irish Catholic traditional household, so a lot of the values of service and helping other people were ingrained in me growing up. I always had a vision of helping people, but my original plan was, I'll do that later in life. I'm going to go the traditional American path, and go make some money [first]. So I went to UCLA, and I went into finance in 1995.

Luckily as I was growing up and maturing, I said, "Man my job has nothing to do with my values. I want to be focused on helping people." So I went to do service work abroad. I taught in a rural part of Zimbabwe and a rural part of Thailand. I lived with these incredible kids and their grandma in the bush, no running water, no electricity, taught at a high school. And I just said, "I'm not waiting until later to try to improve this world. I've got to get moving on it."

That realization had me moving to education full time in 2002. In our country the most important issue that can unlock the most possibility in peoples’ futures is we give everybody a great public education. It’s a fixable problem. I helped create a group called Green Dot Public Schools, a non-profit organization that opened charter high schools in the neediest parts of L.A. Eight of the 10 schools [were] recognized by U.S News and World Report amongst the best high schools in the country.

I left that to work in district public schools, where I helped create a group called The Partnership For Los Angeles Schools to turn around the lowest-performing schools in L.A. We brought in phenomenal principals, invested a ton in our teachers and gave them support. We invested over $1 million in parent engagement, created parent centers at every single school. We launched a Parent College on Saturdays, so parents could learn how to get more involved in their kids’ education.  And now other school districts are using that same model, and we had nice success. I left the organization a while ago to focus on the politics of education. To really serve every child, we've got to change the politics of education at Sacramento. It has to be done.

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Speak UP: Why in such a liberal state are we so underfunded in education?

Marshall: What’s happening in our state is we haven't prioritized public schools, and I think what one of the challenges is, those that have more political influence, which typically is your wealthier families, they haven't really been that directly impacted by the failure in our public schools, because they can either go to private schools or move to neighborhoods with really good public schools. When you have an issue where those that have power don't prioritize it, and those that are most impacted don't have political influence, that's when special interests and the status quo can dominate, and we just don't end up making progress.

We have a lot of work to do. We need a lot of real change, but it’s possible. This is California. We have the wealth, we've got the creativity, we've got the intellectual ingenuity, we certainly have the people. It’s just a matter of us actually getting the political will in the leadership and doing it.

Speak UP:  On your website, you talk about “21st century work rules,” and this is an issue that's really important to a lot of our parents. We hear from our parents that their favorite teachers get laid off because they don't have seniority, and sometimes we hear that teachers whose hearts aren't in the job anymore, their jobs are protected. So can you talk about your views on teacher tenure, on seniority-based layoff rules, what needs to change, and how you're different from your opponent on any of these things?

Marshall: The most important thing in a school are teachers. If we want to have the best public schools in the country, we have to do a phenomenal job of supporting our teachers and principals. Because while teaching is incredibly complex, school systems aren't as complex as people think. It’s how do you maximize the relationship between a student and a teacher, and then have additional supports to help support that teacher and that student, social emotional supports, other supports, and then how do you have a strong school leader that can help manage that across the school?  

We have to pay our teachers more. They're way underfunded. We've got to give a lot more time during our school days for our teachers to get better. One thing we did in our schools, which was really effective, is we found our best teachers, and gave them some free time during the school day to go and coach and mentor their peers.  

But we also have to look at the work rules, because there are work rules right now around teachers that aren't effective for our kids but also for teachers, and I've seen it firsthand. One you mentioned was seniority-based layoffs, which is state law in the Ed code. The Ed code is this huge book that's like 2500 pages. It’s got just tons of regulation. It really takes creativity, innovation out of the hands of teachers. It takes leadership in many ways out of the hands of principals, so one thing I want to do is decrease the size of that book over time, to give local school communities the decision-making authority they should have.

But when the law says, "If schools have to do layoffs, all layoffs are done based only on seniority," and the problem is we know for a statistical fact that higher poverty kids have younger teachers.

So if you do layoffs based only on seniority, it has a disproportional impact on the highest poverty kids. Then secondly, you may even in a wealthier neighborhood have to release a great teacher for a teacher who is less than effective. So that law just doesn't make sense.

Our state has a two-year tenure system, and it’s really 18 months, because principals basically have to make that decision by the start of February, because a district has to notify a teacher if they're going to get tenure or not by March. It’s not just bad for kids because it means you might have folks who have jobs that shouldn't be there. It’s another law that disproportionally impacts our highest-poverty kids, because oftentimes if mistakes are made with tenure, they push those teachers to schools where the parents aren't as engaged, which is a real problem. But it’s also not great for teachers because you may have a teacher you're not sure about at 18 months. So some school systems will actually let go of teachers that maybe could have been really good teachers if they'd had another year of support. I certainly think that we just need to extend tenure. We have two tenure systems in our state that are longer and more rigorous to get: our community college system and our university system.

So let’s just take the community college model and bring that down to K-12. It’s a model that people have agreed on that works in another school system in California, so why not make that change? But this is an example where the status quo just doesn't change, and certainly my main opponent in this race does not want to change those rules in a meaningful way. If we can just make every decision with a clear lens about, "Will this actually help us educate our kids? Does this help kids?" You would change those policies.

Speak UP: Did you and did your main opponent support a bill from Shirley Weber to lengthen the tenure period to three years?

Marshall: If you look at the votes on Dr. Weber’s bill, both in the committee and on the floor, [my main opponent] was nowhere to be found in terms of making a vote and actually spoke against it. You can see there's a very clear difference on that issue between me and my main opponent. Dr. Weber endorsed our campaign. I think she's the leading voice for kids in the Legislature.

Speak UP: You've also been endorsed by school administrators.

Marshall: The group that represents all the principals and superintendents in the state endorsed our campaign, which we're really proud of. And President Obama's Education Secretary Arne Duncan endorsed our campaign and a number of others.  

To read part two of this interview, click here. Speak UP has also reached out to Tuck's main opponent but has not yet been able to schedule an interview.