CALIFORNIA, USA — This story was originally published by CalMatters
In the past two years, public education has been redefined by the COVID pandemic and the renewed fight for social justice. Lance Christensen’s candidacy for state superintendent of public instruction is very much a response to the state’s handling of both.
Christensen says he’s speaking up for parents whose children were shut out of in-person instruction because teachers’ unions, Gov. Gavin Newsom and top school officials kept schools closed for two years. He wants to take politics out of the classroom, where he says teachers too often indoctrinate students with radical ideologies. Some call him a “culture warrior,” but he sees himself as a problem solver.
“I would rather come in, fix a system and leave, and not feel like I have to be a career politician, and make sure we get education right again in California,” Christensen said during a nearly hour-long interview this week with CalMatters. “Because this is an incredible place to teach kids, and right now we’re screwing it all up.”
But he’s up against political reality to become California’s next schools chief. Though it’s officially a nonpartisan election on Nov. 8, Christensen is a Republican running in a Democratic state. And while incumbent Tony Thurmond failed to win a clear majority in the June primary and avoid a fall campaign, he has the backing of the Democratic establishment.
Christensen’s fundraising numbers also paint a dire picture for his candidacy. He’s raised $85,000 while Thurmond has raised $1.8 million. On top of that, teachers and school employee unions have independently spent $2.3 million for Thurmond.
“When the teachers unions can drop in millions of dollars at the drop of a hat, then yeah, that’s a hard thing to get,” he said. “So they basically have owned the last several superintendents of public instruction. I’m not that person.”
Here are some other key takeaways from his CalMatters interview:
'Put students first'
Christensen said that for too long, the needs of teachers’ unions have superseded those of students. The power of unions, he said, was clearest during the extended school closures during the first years of the pandemic.
“We put teachers in front of the line to get vaccinations, meaning that we hope that schools ought to open right away,” he said. “They didn’t, and California was the last of all the states to open up their schools.”
He blames unions for the academic and mental health struggles of many students kept out of the classroom. But Christensen also distinguishes “good” teachers from the teachers unions.
“We have an incredible amount of teachers here that are doing it for the right reasons,” he said. “We have a teacher’s union, which has made education overtly political and has put their needs first as opposed to kids.”
Christensen also wants to make it easier to fire bad teachers. “I think the teacher’s union has to be held accountable for the teachers that it protects,” he said.
But he also wants to make it easier to credential good teachers. He said schools could hire retired engineers, scientists and doctors to teach without making them spend a year getting their credential. He cited Los Angeles’ magnet schools as an example of how working professionals can serve public school students.
“They find people who are world-renowned experts, actors and Hollywood directors and sound people, come into these magnet schools and treat these kids to an incredible education in Hollywood and the digital arts and acting and producing,” he said. “Why aren’t we replicating that in other places?”
'Add parents back to the education equation'
If students come first for Christensen, parents come in at a close second. He said if school districts were serving their students, angry parents wouldn’t be showing up to school board meetings.
“Literally the first person I will hire is a deputy superintendent who would be a chief parent advocate,” he said.
Christensen said parents have been shut out of decision-making since the start of the pandemic. They’ve had little say in vaccine, masking and school reopening protocols, and he wants to fix that.
“Whatever issues parents feel strongly about, they would have somebody in my office that they could talk directly to and not feel like they’re getting the run-around,” he said. And it wouldn’t require expanding the state Department of Education bureaucracy to be better at listening to parents.
“Obviously, you can’t accommodate 6 million families in the state that have kids in the school system,” he said. “But you can at least be accessible.”
'I’m not a cultural warrior'
But some are worried about Christensen’s conservative agenda. The Los Angeles Times editorial board endorsed Thurmond, despite the latter’s “weak record.” The San Diego Union-Tribune’s editorial board endorsed Christensen and a second candidate for the June primary, but retracted its support in September, warning that California doesn’t need a “culture warrior” in charge of public education.
Christensen says that’s an unfair description. “I’m a religious person, I’m a conservative, I don’t make any bones about that,” he said. “I don’t try to excuse it. I don’t hide it.”
Christensen says he wants the “culture wars” removed from the classroom. He gave the example of Gabriel Gipe, a Sacramento-area teacher accused of radicalizing students.
“I remember my high school class, I didn’t know which way my teacher voted,” he said. “I had no idea.”
While Christensen said there are “hundreds” of examples of California teachers indoctrinating students, he didn’t provide other specific examples. He said schools should teach the “warts, scars and bruises of history,” but he doesn’t want students to be shamed for the color of their skin.
'Accountability for all these school districts'
Christensen wants parents to know exactly how schools are performing and exactly how much money is being pumped into them.
“Let’s make sure the scores are tied next to all the budgets,” he said. “Let’s make sure that we understand how much these superintendents and administration are being paid.”
He wants parents to be able to visit a single webpage that shows the impact of taxpayer dollars in each of California’s public schools: “A grand Wikipedia, so that parents can do apples-to-apples comparisons instead of trying to do this check back and forth.”
This central hub would bring together test scores and salaries so the public can see whether it’s getting the most bang for its buck.
“The prime directive is to make sure there’s some sort of accountability for all these school districts,” he said. “So let’s get the people, the taxpayers, the parents, as much information as possible.”
'Tony Thurmond has not shown up'
The editorial boards that reluctantly endorse Thurmond draw attention to the controversy that has consumed his first term: the accusations of a toxic workplace, questionable hiring practices and his absenteeism during the pandemic.
Christensen has described Thurmond as a “nonentity,” while Thurmond said his absence has been exaggerated. Education experts say Thurmond could have done more to support local school boards facing vitriol from parents. But they also say it’s crucial for the superintendent and the governor to see eye-to-eye.
Christensen said as long as the governor and Legislature “put the unions first,” he’ll be the “loudest, most vociferous opponent to whatever they’re doing.”
Christensen also says he’d take more of an active role as schools superintendent. “You know where I’ve been on Zooms and on Instagram and Facebook Lives,” Christensen said. “I’m an open book. Good luck finding the superintendent in office doing that right now.”
But for all his outreach, he’s sober about his chances of defeating a union-backed candidate.
“I know what the unions are capable of and so I’m prepared for that, but I’m also prepared to work hand-in-hand with a new legislator that wants to put the kids first,” he said. “And it’s not more complicated than that. It really is not.”
CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics