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Exclusive: Adam Anderson, a third-way candidate for California’s superintendent of instruction, on why he pulled out of the race

Laura Greanias | February 14, 2018



Adam Anderson, a third-way candidate for California’s state superintendent of instruction, has pulled out of the race.

Anderson, 36, was educated in California public schools through college. He spent six years in Chicago and directed strategy and policy at Chicago Public Schools before returning to California in 2014 to lead strategy and operations at EducationSuperHighway, a San Francisco-based nonprofit.

The March filing deadline is still weeks away, so more may join what for now is a four-way race.

Marshall Tuck leads in fundraising over Tony Thurmond, a state assemblyman from Northern California. Tuck was CEO of Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a nonprofit formed by former LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and president of Green Dot Public Schools, a charter school network in LA.

Anderson started building his campaign in September but notified his supporters Tuesday that he won’t be continuing. He spoke with LA School Report about why he was in, why he got out, and what he sees as the greatest challenges and opportunities for education in the state.

His answers have been lightly edited.

Why did you get into the race?

First, as a proud alumnus of California public schools from kindergarten through undergrad, I am driven to do everything I can to ensure that all students — regardless of ZIP code or learning needs — have the same opportunities to fulfill their potential through public education as I have received. I also watched my father become a California public school teacher after 22 years in the military — he’s now in his 18th and final year, currently teaching eighth-grade math at Vandenberg Middle School, where I went as a child — and I have an incredible amount of respect for the work that educators and families do every day. I believe that the state superintendent, with the right vision and leadership — all driven by a true equity-based agenda — can do much to improve the daily lives of students, teachers, families, and public education leaders across the state so that all children have a high-quality education.

What do you hope to see for education in California?

Overall, I want to see schools and classrooms that are thriving, where all students, teachers, and staff feel safe and supported, high-quality teaching and learning are happening everywhere and all the time, and students are preparing for the unknown future they will face. Today’s kindergarteners will graduate from high school in 2030. Whether they pursue college or begin a career, they must be prepared to be successful in this uncertain future and solve problems that are not yet known. Our graduates must be intellectually curious, open-minded, critical thinkers with strong communication and collaboration skills.

And, of course, this would be happening in all communities, from the largest city to the smallest town, and for all students, including English learners, African-American males, students receiving special education, foster and homeless youth, low-income students, and any other traditionally underserved population.

To do this, we need to start with the classroom at the center and build support from there. Just as we expect teachers to know and meet the needs of every student in their class, teachers should get the same support from principals. And principals from district leadership, districts from the county, and counties from the state. We need to shift from an overemphasis on compliance to one of support.

You positioned yourself as a third way. Why is that needed in California?

The third way was really about relevant experience and full independence from the politics in education.

From an experience perspective, I thought it was important to bring experience growing up in public schools on Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc, serving as a senior leader in the central office of a large, complex public school system in Chicago — with over 600 schools serving almost 400,000 students — and as an executive at a nationwide nonprofit working through state agencies and local districts to support public education. I think a broad and deep understanding of large public systems — how they work and how to evolve them — is an important consideration for the state superintendent role anywhere, and even more so in California given our size and diversity.

The independence piece is really about the politics that we see so often in public education campaigns — for example, charters vs. unions — but there are other issues as well that can too frequently lead to a narrowly defined, polarizing debate. My belief was that I would help ensure that we had a deeper and more comprehensive conversation and one that acknowledged that all of us have an important role in improving the daily lives of students, teachers, and families — and that we need to work together to make that happen — from the reform movement to the labor organizations.

And this really is about politics and not specific candidates. I am hopeful and optimistic that the remaining candidates will push the conversation to be comprehensive, collaborative, and inclusive as opposed to narrowly defined and polarizing.

Can a third-way candidate win in this state?

I have no doubt that they could. In my case, I never doubted my candidacy. The reality just came to be that, given when I got started relative to others in the field, there was too much ground to make up.

And, as I just alluded to, I believe that the candidate who does the best job of expanding the conversation in a genuine and authentic way will win.

What do you hope the dialogue will be in this race?

I hope the driving force is grounded in true equity: how to serve all districts individually, from the largest city to the smallest, and meet the needs of all students.

I also hope there will be deep conversations about how to both protect and strengthen the direction we are headed. A lot of change has happened in California public education over the last decade, from standards-based instruction to funding formulas to local control and accountability to scorecards and systems of support.

And we are facing more change at the top: a new governor, new state Board of Education, an evolving legislative landscape. The next superintendent will need to push progress but also make sure that we don’t go backward on some key areas by building influence with the new state leadership and advocating for what is best for education statewide.

I want to hear candidates talk about how they will lead the difficult balancing act of moving faster and improving what we are doing, while honoring the amount of change that has happened and allowing the work to take hold.

What is the biggest challenge, and biggest opportunity, for education in California?

In general, as is true in most cases, the biggest challenges and opportunities go hand in hand. California is such a large, diverse, and incredible state. The resources, from money to human capital to established industries, are there to support public education and incredible things are happening in schools.

Of course, that size and complexity is also a challenge: 6.2 million students, 1,000 districts, 10,000 schools, almost 300,000 teachers and numerous other leaders and educational staff. Each community has unique needs, which is why I’m a believer in local control, but we need to figure out how to continue to set high expectations for our school districts and have thoughtful accountability systems that are complemented with high-quality support so they can be successful.

More acutely, education happens in schools and classrooms, and in too many places we are failing our teachers and school leaders, who have the most direct impact on our students. We need to make sure teachers can afford to live where they serve, have great preparation and induction programs and ongoing professional development, and that they have what they need in the classroom — especially high-quality, consistent curriculum materials. And we need to make sure that school leaders have the resources they need to support teachers and families in their community.

As part of all that, I am also looking forward to hearing the remaining candidates address the overall financial discussion, including adequacy, increased transparency, pensions, local special education cost burdens, and how to support districts in building their capacity for genuine, deep, and sustained family and community engagement.

Are you going to continue working in education in California?

Absolutely! As I’ve shared, California public schools mean so much to me. While I am, of course, disappointed in the outcome of this campaign, I am excited to move forward and determine where I can serve next and have the biggest positive impact.

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