As state schools chief Delaine Eastin runs for re-election against four little-known candidates, educators are saying the office of state superintendent of public instruction has in many ways devolved from powerful inside player to sidelined cheerleader.

Indeed, they say the most critical choice before voters is not who should be elected, but whether the next superintendent will be aligned with the new governor.

With that alignment comes power. Without it, as witnessed over the past four years, the superintendent has influence but little legal authority to set policy in California schools. Some educators are even debating whether there should be an elected superintendent at all.

“It would help if there were less partisanship,” said Mary Bergan, president of the 45,000-member California Federation of Teachers,
which endorsed Eastin’s bid for re-election with “some reservation.”

Through the past four years, Eastin and Gov. Wilson have publicly sparred over a variety of issues, ranging from whether to give non-English-speaking children an English-only standardized test to how best to teach math. Wilson won the testing debate, and the two compromised on how to teach math.

It is not below the two to fire off petty and patronizing letters. “Getting letters from Wilson is a little like having hives or shingles,” said Eastin, the state’s first female school superintendent. “It makes me wonder where the grown ups are.”

Bergan, head of the state’s teachers’ union, said the friction between the Democratic superintendent and the Republican governor didn’t help education.

“There was a time when you had more rational discussion,” Bergan said. “I thought we were better off when the state board was less pushy and activist.”

Because of a 1993 court decision that dramatically shifted power, the state board – not the popularly elected superintendent – sets education policy in California.

“Before the court decision, we used to say that the board was there solely to adopt textbooks,” Bergan said.

But now the balance has shifted.

“You have a board that’s hostile to Delaine and has philosophical differences with her,” said Bill Honig, state schools chief during 1982-1993. “Delaine is passionate about broad issues, but the leadership is clearly coming from the board.”

It was under Honig, who earned a reputation as brash, brilliant and dictatorial,
that the lawsuit to give the board greater authority was filed – and won.

But the conflict could change this year if a superintendent and governor with similar philosophies are elected.

So far, the only person waging a significant campaign against Eastin is veteran first-grade teacher Gloria Matta Tuchman, 56, a Republican best known as co-author of Proposition 227, the initiative to end bilingual education.

Ideological opposites

Tuchman ran unsuccessfully against Eastin four years ago, and presents herself as Eastin’s ideological opposite today.

“I believe all high school graduates should be able to read, write and speak in English,” Tuchman says in her campaign literature. “I do not favor social promotion.”

Eastin supports bilingual education, and strongly opposes Prop. 227.

Although Tuchman is endorsed by the California Republican Party and has raised $77,000, she has garnered little support among likely voters, actually lagging behind lesser-known contenders. In a runoff, though, she could well gain support if Prop. 227 passes as expected.

Other candidates waging low-profile and low-cost campaigns are Barbara Carpenter, 63, a Republican who is a former education professor and one-term San Diego County school board member; Miles Everett, 66, a registered independent from Healdsburg who has a doctorate in history and has worked as a flight attendant and a carpet cleaner; and, Mark Isler, 51, a Republican who hosts a weekly cable talk show.

In the lead

A Field Poll taken this month showed Eastin ahead of her rivals, but rvative educators in California say the dual system doesn’t work.

“This is not a good check-and-balance system because Delaine, with all of her grandstanding, has been an obstacle to reform,” said Lance Izumi, senior fellow at the conservative Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco.

Counters state Sen. Bill Lockyer, D-Hayward: “The best system would be to have an elected superintendent and a board that holds a more advisory role. It would be too convenient for a Republican governor to have someone
– whether Tuchman or another Republican – who wouldn’t criticize him.”

Reform bills languish

Despite that general dissatisfaction, various reform bills introduced by Sen. Leroy Greene, D-Carmichael, have failed or remain dormant in the Legislature.

Neither Republicans nor Democrats appear willing to concede what power they have. Democrats don’t want to give the governor more control over education;
Republicans are reluctant to lessen the influence of the appointed board.

Meanwhile, Eastin insists she has no less power than previous superintendents.
But she acknowledges her influence comes from her persistent personality and political prowess.

“Certain people treat me like a bee,” said Eastin, the former chairwoman of the Assembly Education Committee. “They hear me buzzing and want me out. But eventually they remember my words.”

Lockyer agrees: “The system we have now does create friction that devolves into turf fights, but Delaine is not frozen out by the board or the governor. They certainly wish she’d go away.”

The Eastin agenda

Eastin has used her position to push her education agenda, which has focused on establishing a standardized test, tougher graduation requirements and a system to reward top-performing schools and help the low-achieving schools.

She was on the record in 1995 talking about reducing class size to 20 students per teacher. In July 1997, Wilson signed class-size reduction into law.

She began calling for lengthening the school year, to at least 180 days from 172, in 1995. Wilson announced in January that he would lengthen the school year to 180 days.

Eastin is credited with creating a reading task force that led the state board away from whole language to a more balanced teaching methodology emphasizing phonics.

She was also the first superintendent to establish a set of voluntary statewide standards for what children should know in math, reading, science and history, and she called this year for “universal preschool”
for every 4-year-old in California. The idea has been adopted up by others,
including Democratic gubernatorial candidate Al Checchi.

“This system doesn’t work well because the board is solely driven by the voice of the governor,” Eastin said, but “the public seems to like having a Democrat superintendent and Republican governor.”

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