Thomas returns to Biola: Secretary of Education discusses experiences

Biola alumnus Glen W. Thomas (’68), newly appointed Secretary of Education for the State of California, paid a visit to his alma mater Wednesday to give a first-hand account of his career and experiences.

Kathryn Watson, Writer

Biola alumnus Glen W. Thomas (’68), newly appointed Secretary of Education for the State of California, paid a visit to his alma mater Wednesday to give a first-hand account of his career and experiences.

Thomas’ January appointment makes him the first graduate in Biola’s history to take a position in the governor’s cabinet in California, as a previous Biola press release noted. Tasks of his new role revolve around advising the governor on educational issues at every level. In a time when the state is steeped in a $45 billion deficit, Thomas said he finds the challenges he faces to be opportunities to rethink the educational system and its core values. Standing on the stage of Sutherland Auditorium, Thomas expressed his fond memories of his alma mater.

“It’s good to be back at Biola,” the Republican began. “I was in this hall taking Old Testament …”

He relived his eventful days at Biola, marked by, among other activities, participating in water fights, spending the night on the Caf roof, snatching the Biola Egg from Westmont College, serving on ASB, and writing for The Chimes. Thomas attributed some of his success later in life to his pivotal days at Biola, noting that his Bible classes especially formed his thinking.

“You never really appreciate your education at Biola until you leave,” he said.

Since those days, Thomas has spent over 30 years working in the field of education. Thomas, who began his career in the public school system working with the children of migrant farm worker, went on to assume posts such as state educational technology director, executive director for the California County Superintendents Education Services Association, and assistant superintendent and director of the Elementary Teaching and Learning Division for the California Department of Education.

After graduating from Biola with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, Thomas continued on to Washington State Univeristy for his master’s degree in child and family studies, then to the University of Southern California, where he earned his doctorate in educational leadership.

California’s schools, which used to be pretty top notch, have deteriorated over time, Thomas said.

“It’s a little bit like our highways. If you don’t tend to them over 20 or 30 years, there are cracks. And there are potholes. And the bridges have not been retrofitted for earthquakes …”

Thomas advocated for a more comprehensive data system for academic standards, through which the state could improve the “disconnect” between standards in public high school and expectations at the college level, he said. In a world that is quickly becoming more internationally competitive, Thomas supported a re-benchmarking of “common course standards” across the 50 states, as long as California’s standards weren’t lowered in the process. Such a grand readjustment, however, would be difficult, he said.

As the secretary of education, Thomas will also be actively involved in channeling a significant chunk of funds from federal programs into California’s public school system. Thomas advocated for maintaining principles that are not only Christian, but “just fair.” Notifying parents of what their children are reading, then allowing them to opt out of the reading is one example of how he would like to interweave his values and his position, he mentioned.

Thomas, who mentioned Jeremiah 29:11 as one of his favorite verses for inspiration, isn’t shy about his Christian faith in the public sector. Early on in his career, his identity as a follower of Christ became common knowledge. Now, people already know where he stands, he said. Thomas encouraged Christians to boldly enter every field, commenting that he wished people of Christians ethics and values would speak up more often. When asked whether or not Christians should enter into public education, Thomas insisted on the importance of participation.

“We live in a democracy that only works when people of good will and good value are actively involved. The way to destroy a democracy is to become blasé, passive, not involved.”

Thomas has been married to his wife, Connie (’69), for more than 38 years. Connie, who teaches in the public school system, and Glen have two daughters, Jori and Jody, both products of public schools and graduates of secular universities.

While attendance was rather sparse and most of those present weren’t current students, the audience was engaged in the event.

Colleen Miller, who teaches fourth grade in the Long Beach Unified District and has a freshman son here at Biola, brought her husband along for the ride.

“I’m excited to hear a Christian viewpoint in the public sector,” she said.

Colleen was concerned that the public schools waste much of what they are given, despite the difficult economy and budget cuts.

Biola grad Debbie Booth (’82), who has worked in education for 10 years and now teaches kindergarten, said she was intrigued by Schwarzenegger pick in the first place.

“I thought it was sort of an interesting twist of things, seeing that he’s not only a Christian, but a Biola alum.”

As the night drew to a close, Biola honored Thomas with an award for his career achievements and President Corey lifted him up in prayer. Thomas, who said teaching is “one of the best expressions of public service,” was awed to see God direct his career path to this point.

“Life is not linear. A good part of life we cannot predict. … The more we can acknowledge that, the more we can rely on God’s purposes.”

Thomas is responsible for overseeing the following aspects of public education in California:

6.5 million in K-12
1,030 school districts
Over 10,000 schools
Over 750 charter schools
58 county offices of education
110 community colleges
23 state university campuses
13 University of California campuses

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