Candidates for schools chief a study of opposites

The two candidates vying for the office of California schools chief agree on the basics of how to improve public education: adopt high standards and a system of accountability, hire qualified teachers and get parents involved.

That’s where their similarities end. Moderate Democrat incumbent Delaine Eastin and conservative Republican challenger Gloria Matta Tuchman are at odds on every other critical education issue facing the state.

Their views on vouchers, class-size reduction, competency testing for teachers, per-pupil spending and how non-English speaking kids should be taught and tested, for example, offer voters sharply contrasting agendas for California schools.

In fact, it is their divergent opinions on bilingual education that most clearly divide the candidates for state superintendent of public instruction.

Eastin, 51, who was elected to the state’s top education job in 1994, favors a system of bilingual education in which children of immigrants are taught, or aided, in their primary language but transitioned to English -only classrooms after three or four years.

She does not believe students who have yet to learn English should be given an exam written in English, saying it’s a waste of teacher and student time and taxpayer dollars. She likens it to giving an exam in Cantonese to someone who only understands English.

Tuchman, 56, a veteran first-grade teacher in Orange County who garnered enough votes in a five-way primary to force Eastin into a runoff, is best known as co-author of victorious Proposition 227, the initiative to virtually end bilingual education in California.

“The original purpose of bilingual education was to teach English, but it became something that delays the learning of English,” Tuchman said. “Our high school diplomas are printed in English and that’s what our children need a mastery of.”

She believes all children, regardless of whether they are fluent in English, should take the state-mandated English-only exam, which was given to children in grades 2 through 11 for the first time last spring.

“If the child scored zero last year, that’s OK. It’s a benchmark. But if they score zero next year, we’ll know they aren’t being taught English,” Tuchman said.

Differences on spending

Another difference lies in the candidates’ views on how much the state should spend to educate its students.

Eastin wants to raise spending from $ 5,789 per pupil to the national per-pupil average of $ 6,131. The low spending figure for California is especially significant, Eastin said, when compared with such states as New York and New Jersey, which last year spent $ 8,442 and $ 9,644, respectively.

Raising per-pupil spending is not a priority for Tuchman. “We don’t need more per-pupil spending,” Tuchman said. “First, I would do an internal audit of the state Department of Education to find out where the money is being misused.”

The Department of Education is run by the state superintendent.

While both Tuchman and Eastin come from working-class families, their career pursuits offer another contrast.

Eastin was born in San Diego and reared in San Carlos. Her father was a Navy machinist, her mother a sales clerk.

A former Fremont assemblywoman, Union City councilwoman, corporate saleswoman at Pacific Telesis and community college instructor, Eastin is, more than anything, a political veteran.

Although the office of state superintendent is supposed to be nonpartisan, it is highly political.

Through the past four years, Gov. Wilson and Eastin have publicly sparred over a variety of issues, ranging from whether to give non-English -speaking kids an English-only exam to how best to teach math.

Under California’s complex current system, there are two separate chains of command overseeing education.

Wilson, as governor, appoints and largely controls the 11-member state Board of Education. He determines funding levels for schools and, through the board, education policy.

For the most part, the state schools chief oversees the day-to-day operation of schools and makes sure the state board’s policies are implemented. She has no direct control over the board, and the board has little control over Eastin.

A fiery public speaker, Eastin has used the superintendency as a bully pulpit to promote her agenda of “standards, assessment and accountability.”

Since taking office, she has achieved many of her goals, she said, including establishing higher standards in English, math, science and history and instituting a statewide exam.

“We have standards and we have a test. But we don’t have a system of accountability and I want to make sure that happens,” Eastin said. “For children, this means they must master material grade by grade, year by year. For teachers, it means having a system where we measure progress year to year, looking at a number of factors, including test scores of students.”

Eastin also takes credit for the state’s popular class size reduction program, pointing out she was publicly pushing for smaller classes in September 1995, while Gov. Wilson’s first speech promoting smaller classes was in June 1996. Wilson signed the class size reduction program into law in July 1997.

Fulfilling a campaign pledge, Eastin visited roughly one school a week in the state’s 58 counties. In all, she has visited 250 schools.

29 years at same school

Tuchman was born in Pecos, Texas, and grew up in Mesa, Ariz. Her mother and father own and operate a Mexican restaurant. Of her 33 years as a teacher, 29 have been at the same elementary school. Her political experience includes nine years as a board member in Orange County’s Tustin Unified School District.

She said she wants to be state superintendent because “California needs an education revolution.

“I have been here a long time and seen the decline of education. I want to see us return to traditional phonics and traditional math. I want to see every child read, write and do math, and become fluent in English. That’s not happening right now.”

Dismissing critics who say she lacks the political savvy and backbone for the job, Tuchman said, “It’s not too tough for Gloria to handle. People can say I don’t have the knowledge or expertise, but I’m an educator. I’m very astute to the political dealings that come with the job. And I’m willing to work with anyone as long as they know where I’m coming from, which is advocating for children.”

Whoever wins the runoff Nov. 3 will be paid $ 111,384 a year to oversee 1,300 employees at the Department of Education, plus 8,000 schools in 1,000 districts with 5.6 million children and a $ 40 billion education budget.

The immediate challenges facing California schools are daunting: One in four children arrives in school speaking little if any English; there is an urgent need to build 43,000 new classrooms; some 1 million new students will enter the public system in the next 10 years; and the state will need to hire between 200,000 and 300,000 teachers over the next eight years.

Eastin is backed by the state’s chief Democratic political groups, including both state teachers unions and its major labor unions. Her single largest donation was a $ 60,000 contribution from Ameriquest Capitol Corp., whose CEO is backing Gray Davis’ run for governor.

Tuchman has the backing of the state’s main Republican groups. Her largest single contributor is computer fortune heir David Woodley Packard, who gave her $ 500,000. She also picked up support from millionaire voucher proponents: $ 35,000 from Wal-Mart heir John Walton and $ 175,000 from Home Savings and Loan heir Howard Ahmanson.

In an Examiner poll taken Oct. 11-13, Eastin was leading Tuchman by 15 points, with 31 percent of those surveyed undecided.

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