01/28/2014 04:56 pm ET Updated Mar 30, 2014

The Education of Marshall Tuck and the Making of a Run for California's Chief Education Office

I knew something was up by the tone of Marshall's voice. He was unusually serious and vague about why he wanted to see me.

Marshall Tuck was the CEO of one of the largest school turnaround efforts in the nation, a non-profit called the Partnership for LA Schools, serving 15,000 kids across the most impoverished neighborhoods of Los Angeles: Watts, Boyle Heights and South LA. Marshall and I had established the Partnership six years earlier. We were just finishing up our second consecutive year with record results.

So when he told me he was quitting to run for State Superintendent of Public Instruction, I was quite taken aback. Despite our successes with the Partnership schools, we still had much left to do. However, once Marshall began to explain his reasoning, I quickly understood his motivations. I was well aware the experiences that shaped his decision to make this run. Marshall and I had shared many of the same successes and challenges over the last five years in managing public schools in Los Angeles. The Partnership schools are public schools, serving all families within the attendance area and fully staffed with union teachers. We improve our schools while working within the Los Angeles Unified School District. We are not charter schools; we are your neighborhood school.

Despite our achievements at the Partnership schools, the gauntlet of absurd and heartbreaking frustrations we encounter on a daily basis in navigating the State Education Code and its often byzantine and rigid regulations is endless. The State Code is literally a six-inch thick book governing everything from facilities to labor force. It is the bible for a huge bureaucracy and too little of it translates into good for kids, particularly children living in poverty, or more than half of all public school students in California today.

The State Superintendent of Instruction is the one office most able to interpret and lead for change in the State Education Code. The office of Superintendent has the potential to set a new tone and direction for K-12 education in California. It manages the Department of Education and oversees education policy for the state's 9,000 schools. The potential of this office to help the children of California is enormous and no one understands these possibilities better than Marshall.

Marshall successfully managed charter and public schools over the last twelve years so he has experienced first-hand what it's actually like to run schools in low income neighborhoods within the last decade. Marshall began working with inner city students in Los Angeles in 2002 as President of Green Dot Public Schools, at the time a start-up charter school operator. He worked without pay for months on-end as he, Steve Barr and others got their second school up and running. In that time, he saw the quick academic successes well managed charter schools can bring to inner city kids. Green Dot opened five high schools in some of the toughest neighborhoods in Los Angeles and all five went on to be named in Newsweek's annual ranking of the best high schools in the country. Today, Green Dot is the leading charter school operator in Los Angeles and one of the top three in the nation.

Marshall left Green Dot in 2006 to work for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and it was there that he helped lead the creation of the Partnership Schools in 2007. The Partnership schools have been tremendously successful in bringing new resources, structures and cultures of achievement to a group of public schools that were in desperate need. Moreover, the Partnership under Marshall innovated many changes in its schools that were adopted by LAUSD at large ranging from uncovering previously unidentified gifted students in low-income communities to bringing timely student and school data to teachers and parents.

One of the most notable innovations Marshall helped foster occurred during the dramatic budget cuts of the last five years when LAUSD was hit with more than 12,000 layoffs. While the average school would lose 10% of its teachers, Partnership schools would see up to 48% of their teachers pushed out due to seniority based layoff policies. In turning around inner city schools, stability is everything. Our students lead lives of poverty where gang violence, drugs and broken homes are the norm. Getting them to trust a teacher is not easy, and it is impossible when so many of their teachers are forced to leave. These wildly disproportionate lay-offs at the Partnership schools threatened to pull the rug out on everything we were trying to achieve.

Marshall and former Mayor Villaraigosa reached out to the American Civil Liberties Union and Public Counsel to file a class action lawsuit alleging seniority based layoffs unfairly deny low-income students equal access to a quality education. The result was an historic settlement that protected 45 of Los Angeles' most impoverished schools from disproportionate layoffs.

Yet even that settlement, clearly so fair and right, brought the opposition of California's education establishment. The decision was appealed and now we must go through a full jury trial to determine the issue. This whole process has taken three years so far and looks like it will now go on for a great deal longer--just to protect the educational rights of impoverished children.

And that is a vivid illustration of why Marshall is running. People running schools and school districts can't even make common sense judgments on behalf of kids due to rigid state rules and leadership. State education policy makers need to understand what its like at the school level, trying to help impoverished children have a chance in life by providing them a decent education. Marshall, more than anyone, understands that all too well.

Marshall brings a wealth of recent experience running charter and traditional public schools, leading both to higher student achievement and graduation rates. Though I may have been sorry to see Marshall leave the Partnerships schools, I am tremendously inspired and hopeful he will bring meaningful changes to benefit all of California's public school kids. The children and families of California could have no better advocate in the Superintendent's office than Marshall Tuck.