California Gubernatorial Candidate Oversees Decline in Reading and Math Scores as Education Chief

California students' math and reading proficiency levels down under Tony Thurmond's tenure

Tony Thurmond (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
October 26, 2023

A top contender for California governor has overseen a decline in reading and math scores, with the latest test scores released last week showing that years after the COVID-19 classroom shutdowns, more than half of kids in the state can't read at grade level, while two-thirds are behind in math.

California's education agency, led by public schools chief Tony Thurmond (D.), found that less than 47 percent of state students last year met grade level for reading. This is an incremental decline from the 2021-22 year. And less than 35 percent of kids met math proficiency in 2022-23, an improvement of just over 1 percentage point from the year before. The year Thurmond took office, nearly 50 percent read at grade level while almost 40 percent were proficient at math.

The test results could spell trouble for Thurmond's campaign to be California's next governor. Under his nearly five-year tenure, the state has heaped funding on schools—increasing per-pupil spending to nearly $24,000—while also seeing academic performance drop dramatically.

"How is Tony Thurmond going to change those numbers?" said Lance Izumi, senior director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute—noting that even the slight improvement in math performance doesn't bode well because at this rate, "it would take six decades to get all students to grade level."

A representative for Thurmond did not respond to a request for comment.

Thurmond, who is backed by the powerful California Teachers Association, has homed in on pushing equity and inclusion and gender ideology in K-12 classrooms amid the widespread decline in academic performance. While students lag behind in reading, Thurmond this year helped write a law to fine school districts if they remove sexually explicit LGBT books.

He also helped secure funding to train teachers to support students' gender transition and chose adamant purveyors of transgenderism, including the Human Rights Campaign Foundation and the Trevor Project, to write the course. This training will soon be mandatory for middle and high school teachers, under a 2023 law.

At the same time, Thurmond as public schools chief has refused to take responsibility for the state's record-long classroom closures that led to chronic absenteeism and the faltering student performance highlighted by these scores. In August, he told an interviewer that it was "hard to say" if these shutdowns were a mistake. His Department of Education, meanwhile, tried to muzzle researchers who testified for a lawsuit on behalf of low-income kids harmed by the closures—a move the agency reversed amid criticism.

When he was on the ballot last year, Thurmond wanted to delay release of state test scores after Election Day—an unusual move that raised suspicion that officials wished to hide the results for political reasons. The backlash made the education agency reverse course.