SACRAMENTO — California’s first superintendent of equity lives in Philadelphia and has a separate job there, more than 2,500 miles away from the schools he advises as one of the highest paid officials in the state Department of Education, according to records and interviews.
Daniel Lee, a psychologist, life coach and self-help author, owns a Pennsylvania-based psychology firm and is the president of the New Jersey Psychological Association’s executive board. He has also been serving as a deputy superintendent for the California Department of Education since July 2020, a role dedicated to the success of children of color that was originally backed by a foundation grant but is now funded by state taxpayers.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, who was instrumental in the hiring, has known Lee for more than two decades since they were social workers in Philadelphia and included Lee in his wedding party. The Education Department’s nonprofit affiliate initially hired Lee without publicly posting the job that now pays up to $179,832, and Lee’s 18-page resume shows no prior experience in California or relationships with school districts in the state.
Lee, 51, voted in Philadelphia as recently as November and owns a home there, according to local records.California education and taxpayer advocates questioned why the state hired someone living across the country with other duties to address persistent inequities in the nation’s largest school population. The hiring appears to flout California policy, which allows few exceptions for a state employee to live elsewhere.
“There are a number of people in California very well qualified in our universities and educational institutions who could do this work,” said Carl Pinkston, director of the Black Parallel School Board in Sacramento, which is suing the state over disciplinary practices for students of color. “Irrespective of who it is, to have someone from out of state who is not familiar with California’s dynamics and politics and challenges come in and attempt to do this work only furthers the fundamental problem, which is that the California Department of Education fails to adequately monitor schools for inequities and push for enforcement.”
Thurmond on Friday defended Lee’s hiring and said he was the best person for the job, describing him as “somebody that I wanted to hire for a long time but he lived out of state. The pandemic opened the door for me to hire someone who is top of his class.”
The state schools chief said he knew of “no specific residency requirements” for state workers. When asked if others were interviewed for the equity job besides Lee, Thurmond said, “I can’t recall.” Thurmond attended Temple University in Philadelphia at the same time as Lee in the 1990s but said they did not know each other until they became social workers.
“The fact that we have known each other for 30 years … if he’s doing great quality work, what difference does it make how long we’ve known each other?” Thurmond said in an interview Friday.
Lee answered the door last month at his Philadelphia business address in a house along a residential street but declined to speak to POLITICO and did not return phone calls. A Nexis search shows no past or current addresses in California.
Mary Nicely, chief deputy of the California Department of Education, defended Lee’s long-distance status. Even as students, teachers and administrators have returned to campuses this school year, Nicely suggested that Lee’s location is less relevant because of remote work practices during the pandemic.
“I think Dr. Lee has been able to do his job more than adequately out of state. He’s always in scheduled meetings with us, he is always available,” Nicely said. “All parts of the state and country are working remotely now because they can. It shouldn’t matter where you are headquartered if you are the absolute best person to lead this work. You can only find so many people who live in Sacramento. The ability to work remotely gives us access to really incredible people who are uniquely qualified.”
But Pinkston said the Education Department needs someone on the ground who can hold school officials accountable for inequitable services.
Lee’s long-distance appointment may run afoul of California rules for state workers. His arrangement is being reported for the first time by POLITICO.
“State employment is for California residents unless the job requires a different location,” said Amy Palmer, spokesperson for the California Government Operations Agency, which runs human resources for the state.
Palmer pointed to rare allowances, such as those lobbying Washington, D.C. on behalf of California. “We are working to provide clarity in the state telework policy to ensure it is clear that teleworking does not change the definition of state employment.”
Thurmond, a former Democratic state lawmaker, was elected as state superintendent of public instruction in 2018 and oversees the California Department of Education, which has more than 2,100 employees. He has struggled to retain high-level staff. Nearly two dozen senior officials have fled the agency since he took office and several accused him of creating a toxic workplace.
A spokesperson for CDE did not provide Lee’s exact salary, but said it is in the range of $161,400 and $179,832. Comparably, Thurmond, an elected statewide constitutional officer, earned $182,189 over the past year, a level determined by a state commission.
Nicely said the department did not give preferential treatment to Lee because of his ties to Thurmond and considered others for the position in-state. But the job was not posted publicly, she said.
“[Thurmond] knew [Lee] had done this work and could do what we haven’t been able to do in the state of California. We found the person that we have not been able to find, who just happens to be someone who the superintendent has known for years and has worked together with for years,” Nicely said.
California Department of Education spokesperson Maria Clayton said the department is “exploring new practices and policies around teleworking to optimize what we have seen work during the pandemic” but that there are “no finalized policies.”
David Kline, a spokesperson for the California Taxpayers Association, said taxpayers expect that state workers reside in the state.
“The taxpayers here would expect that the people working for the government are also living in the community so they experience the effects of the laws and policies they are enacting,” Kline said. “It would also be better for California if this employee was buying things here and helping the economy and paying taxes.”
Addressing equity gaps in California
Lee’s role, the first of its kind, will “bring cohesion in all of the CDE’s equity work,” focused on counseling, social emotional learning “and other whole child programs,” according to the Department of Education’s website. He is head of the state agency’s equity branch, which Thurmond created in August shortly after Lee’s hiring.
Department of Education officials pointed to Lee training staff on implicit bias after the 2020 police killing of George Floyd as part of his work. In October, Lee spoke to the state Assembly Education Committee in-person in Sacramento to support K-12 student mental health legislation. He has also participated in virtual events hosted by CDE on mental health and equity issues.
According to Lee’s Philadelphia-based business website, he offers a slew of services as principal consultant of N-Psy-T Psychological Services, including personal therapy and corporate leadership training. He also has held government contracts with clients like the School District of Philadelphia. He has overseen the company for 17 years, according to his LinkedIn page, which does not list his California position.
The creation of the statewide equity-centered role comes as Thurmond and the Department of Education face a lawsuit for allegedly failing to hold schools accountable for inequity in discipline practices. Black students comprised about 5 percent of California’s total student enrollment but 15 percent of suspensions last year, according to the latest Department of Education data.
California schools have some of the widest achievement gaps in the country. About 20 percent of Black students in California met math standards compared to 54 percent of white students in 2018-19, according to the latest state data available. About 33 percent of Black students met English and language arts goals compared to more than 65 percent of white students.
“We’re glad that equity is on the California Department of Education’s radar, but what we really need is robust monitoring and oversight to hold school districts accountable and create concrete solutions for the racial disparities we’re seeing,” said Alexandra Santa Ana, an attorney with the Oakland-based Equal Justice Society. “It makes you wonder how in depth into the work [Lee] would be able to be and what real change he would be able to implement.”
California hires top staff through education foundation
Lee’s salary was originally funded through part of a $700,000 grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation “for support of equity and research efforts across the state of California” over a two-year span. Lee has since moved to the official California Department of Education payroll.
The nonpartisan Hewlett Foundation awarded the grant to the Californians Dedicated to Education Foundation, a nonprofit that partners with the state Department of Education and preceded Thurmond’s tenure. The CDE Foundation “made the decision about how to spend the funds and who should be hired,” said Neha Gohil, a spokesperson for the Hewlett Foundation, adding that Hewlett was not involved in the hiring process.
In October, Thurmond announced two more new positions in the top California Department of Education ranks, both funded with help from the CDE Foundation. Steve Zimmer, a former Los Angeles Unified school board member, was named deputy superintendent of Thurmond’s initiatives office. Deanna Niebuhr, California policy director at the Berkeley-based Opportunity Institute, was named community schools coordinator.
The California Department of Education declined to share Zimmer and Niebuhr’s salary information, saying that they are CDE Foundation employees. The foundation also declined to provide that data.
“We regularly provide fiscal management support for grants in support of state programs. As a personnel matter, we don’t make salary information public,” said Nancy Kirshner-Rodriguez, chair of the foundation.
Kirshner-Rodriguez said the CDE foundation was founded more than a decade ago “to accomplish important work to improve public education across California.”
Carly Sitrin contributed to this report.