State chief seeks diversity, common values in schools

She opposes a ballot measure that calls for eliminating bilingual education programs

With an abundance of education-related measures slated for the state ballot, Delaine Eastin’s plate is filled to overflowing as she surveys the coming year.

A proposed ban on bilingual education and deep spending cuts for school management are on the June ballot, while Gov. Pete Wilson is sponsoring proposals to cap developer fees and to set more stringent evaluations of teachers.

Other legislators have their own education initiatives and all are among election issues the state superintendent of public instruction will have to keep her eye on this year.

In between, she must oversee more than 1,000 school districts that educate 5.6 million students speaking more than 50 languages.

But Eastin — a native Californian who attended schools in San Francisco and San Carlos before obtaining degrees from UC-Davis and UC-Santa Barbara
— took a few minutes Thursday to engage in a wide-ranging discussion of educational issues during an interview at the Times. On many topics, she combines the idealism of a passionate educator with the pragmatism of a high-level politician.

“I strongly believe in the intrinsic value of learning, which I suppose is a very old-fashioned notion,” said Eastin.

But the former East Bay assemblywoman, who still maintains a home in Fremont, said she also realizes that public education is regarded by many as one of the main contributors to California’s huge economy — eighth largest in the world.

“I am a realist,” she said. “We live in a wonderful capitalist society, and the best way I can engender support for public education is by pointing out the value our schools add to society.”

For Eastin, the implications are large.

“I believe if we don’t have a well-educated population, we can kiss our democracy goodbye. As important as it is to honor our society’s diversity,
we also have to have common values.”

In a huge, patchwork state like California, Eastin said no single approach to education will work in all cases, which is why she strongly opposes the so-called English for the Children initiative, sponsored by Silicon Valley business executive Ron Unz. She said fewer than one-third of the children for whom English is a second language are involved in bilingual classes today.

“We already allow school districts to have English-only curriculum,
and, in many cases, those kids aren’t doing any better academically than they are in bilingual programs,” she said. “We have to allow individual districts the freedom to try different approaches.”

She cited the case of her niece, an elementary school pupil in San Jose,
who attends classes in which both English and Spanish are spoken.

“She’s fluent in both languages, which is a tremendous advantage for both my niece and society as a whole,” Eastin said.

“In Israel, for example, students are learning to speak Hebrew,
Arabic and English. We have to realize in our country that if we’re going to thrive in a global economy, being able to communicate with others is crucial.”

Giving districts “the maximum flexibility (in curriculum), based on the results they get from students,” is how she approaches her job,
Eastin said.

And while she’s an advocate for standardized tests and other types of measurements of how well students are learning — as well as how effective teachers are — she said she’d like to see schools administer “a series of assessments throughout the year, instead of one test at the end of the year.”

“On any given day, a youngster may not perform to his or her best ability, for any number of reasons,” she said.

The number of days those youngsters are in the classroom should be increased to at least 190 each year, Eastin said. The current 180-day requirement can include up to eight staff development days. Wilson has proposed making all 180 days strictly for teaching and is offering districts extra money for extra teaching days.

“Our schools are still operating on a 19th century agrarian calendar,
but we don’t have too many kids harvesting crops any more,” she said.
“Students forget an awful lot when they’re off for three months.”

While Eastin has not officially announced her candidacy for a second term, it’s “very likely” she will run again in June, according to Doug Stone, a spokesman for the state Department of Education. No opposition to Eastin has surfaced, he added.

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