Tony Thurmond, whose mother was an immigrant from Panamá, grew up on a steady diet of food stamps and free lunch programs.
“And more government cheese that you could ever care to eat,” said the 50-year-old California native. “I ate so much government cheese that I thought USDA was a brand name!”
Thurmond didn’t meet his father – a black, Vietnam veteran – until 10 years ago.
Those life experiences are what Thurmond believes will make him an effective Superintendent of Public Instruction. He is also the first Latino, and second black, to hold a post that advocates for about 6 million California students.
“These are programs that helped save my life,” said Thurmond at his Jan. 7 inauguration at McClatchy High School’s newly refurbished, 800-seat theater. “But the most important public program that I had available to me was in education.
“It changed the narrative in my life. It allowed me to overcome poverty. It allowed me to change the course of my life.”
Thurmond believes he could easily have ended up in state prison. “Instead, I ended up being elected the next Superintendent of Public Instruction.”
In a ceremony reflective of his diverse ethnicity (the two-term Assemblymember from Oakland was on the Latino, Black and Jewish legislative caucuses), Thurmond pointed to himself as an example that “education is the great equalizer that will change their lives.”
The speakers demonstrated the new state schools’ chief background that reflects California’s demography: Farmworker labor icon Dolores Huerta, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendón, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Latino Legislative Caucus vice-chair and state Sen. María Elena Durazo, state Sen. Connie M. Levya of the Women’s Legislative Caucus, Assemblymember Shirley Weber of the Legislative Black Caucus, Assemblymember Evan Low of the Legislative LGBT Caucus, and, Assemblymember David Chiu of the Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus.
“I watched as he joined the black caucus, the Latino caucus, the Jewish caucus, the Panamanian caucus,” joked Chiu. “I have to admit, as an Asian American, I was a little disappointed, Tony, that you never outed yourself as an API!”
All the speakers encouraged the public to support Thurmond in improving public education, and convincing state lawmakers to provide the funding to help California avoid being ranked near Mississippi (about 45th) when it comes to public spending per student.
“This work is so important, that we close our school-to-prison pipeline and that we give every one of our 6 million students an opportunity to be successful,” said Thurmond, who was accompanied by his two daughters.
To the students at the high school, and those who traveled from the West Contra Costa County school district where he served as a board member, Thurmond said he has their back.
“Any challenges that the students of McClatchy experience are my challenges. I will be here in your house to help you,” he said. “I’ve got your back, and your teachers’ and your administrators’ and your families’.”
Thurmond, during an 11-minute speech, outlined some key priorities: Literacy, a teacher shortage, a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), and, more funding for education.
“We’ve got to change the narrative of education this state and this country,” said Thurmond. “There’s no reason for the fifth-wealthiest economy in the world to be 45th or 46th in per pupil spending. My top priority: Let’s make our kids No. 1 and fund our schools like they are No. 1.”
Thurmond said he has no direct control over the 1,000-plus school districts in the state, “yet, I will get the blame for what goes wrong.”
“I’ll take your criticism. I’ll take your best shot. But, let’s not criticize our kids,” he said. “Let’s talk about what we need to do to provide them with a great education.
“That starts with resources and training for our educators and support for our kids who have experienced trauma, our kids who are homeless, our kids who are in foster care, our kids who have been suspended and kicked out of school. When you’ve been kicked out of school, you can’t learn.”
Huerta, who spoke for 11 minutes and got the only standing ovation upon being introduced, focused on adequate funding for education and the need to teach children about the positive impact of immigrants “who built this great country.”
“Our children need to know this so that they can have the dignity that they deserve when they go into a classroom; and get rid of the poison of white supremacy and white privilege,” said the 88-year-old Huerta, who noted labor history must also be included in the curriculum.
Comments from other speakers:
▪ Leyva: “When you look at the legislation that he’s authored and gotten on the governor’s desk and gotten signed, you know he’s got a heart, and, he’s got a heart for our children.”
▪ Chui: “When we went to him to and told him we have Muslim students, southeast Asian refugee students and other immigrants students who were being bullied in the classroom, Tony Thurmond was there.”
▪ Low: “We knew it was only a matter of time before the LGBT community was also going to be targeted. In fact, it happened. The Trump administration removed protections for the most vulnerable in our community: Transgender students. And, who came and knocked on the door of the LGBT Legislative Caucus and said, ‘We need to do something.’ It was Tony.”
▪ Durazo: “Our schools are filled with immigrants from all over the world. And, for the first time, those children will have a leader whose mother was an immigrant. Our schools are filled with children who are learning English as a second language. For the first time, these children will have a bilingual leader.”
▪ Weber: “I am who I am as a child of former sharecroppers because of UCLA; because of the education I was given in the state of California. So, we know what education can do. It can transform lives. But, we also know what happens when you are not educated. When you are ignored in the educational system. It can be destructive.”
▪ Rendón: “In 2016 he created a $35 million program to help kids at risk of dropping out of school. In the last legislative session, he introduced a bill to allow 400,000 additional students to get free or reduced meals because he knows that hunger is a major burden to education.”
Thurmond, during a brief interview before the ceremony, said the position “is only as strong as the person who is in it.”
“Yes, there are some parts of the job that lend themselves more to a bully pulpit, but you have to use that. You have to use that microphone. You need to put a spotlight on places with a need for more equity, a need for more resources,” said Thurmond.