Big divide in schools chief race

Prop. 8: Incumbent Eastin opposes measure to create chief inspector, while challenger Tuchman supports it.

One was a veteran Democratic legislator before she took over California’s top schools job four years ago. The other is a schoolteacher and co-author of Proposition 227, an overwhelmingly successful initiative to all but end bilingual education.

The two women running for California superintendent of public instruction offer voters clear philosophical choices in a year when everyone from the state Capitol to Silicon Valley is talking about education.

Delaine Eastin, 51, who chaired the Assembly education committee while serving in the Legislature, has vowed to continue the push for high standards and more accountability. She has urged legislators to raise the amount of per-pupil spending so that it reaches the national average. According to statistics from Market Data Retrieval, California is $756 below the national average — $5,397 per pupil.

“In the Information Age, education is the linchpin issue,” Eastin said. “Years ago, most of the work done in America was for unskilled labor. In the 21st century, that is no longer the case.”

Although Eastin opposed Proposition 227, saying that its one-size-fits-all approach was not the solution to the complex issues surrounding bilingual education, she has pledged to enforce the law’s provisions.

Basic approach

Her challenger, Gloria Matta Tuchman, 56, is a first-grade teacher in Orange County’s Santa Ana Unified School District and an outspoken critic of bilingual education who pledges to return California public schools to the basics — phonics-based reading and traditional math. She contends the state has wasted too much time and money on educational fads. She also believes in maintaining the two-thirds majority required for the passage of school bonds and in merit pay for teachers.

“I support more basic skills –, a curriculum that is driven by skills,” Tuchman said. “The old-fashioned three R’s and grammar and spelling. I think we went too far with cooperative learning and whole language (reading instruction emphasizing literature).”

The superintendent of public instruction is the state’s top school official, responsible for enforcing policy in the state’s 999 public school districts. As the state’s most visible school official, the superintendent can use the position as a bully pulpit to advocate for education issues and reforms. The schools chief is also a member of the University of California and California State University board of regents.

But the job could change depending on whether voters approve Proposition 8. In addition to locking in money for class-size reduction in the primary grades, the measure would create a chief inspector of schools, whose job would duplicate many of the functions currently carried out by the Office of Child Development and Education. The chief inspector, appointed by the governor for a 10-year term, would be responsible for evaluating and reporting on the schools. Money to fund the office — which the Office of Legislative Analyst estimates would cost about $60 million — would come from the state Office of Education’s budget.

“I’m very much opposed to Proposition 8,” Eastin said. “It’s as if the governor took everything he could find and threw it in a basket.”

Tuchman supports Proposition 8, saying the office of the chief inspector can be a valuable tool for rating how schools are doing.

Eastin leads the race with 28 percent of the vote to Tuchman’s 18 percent, according to the most recent Field Poll, but 54 percent of voters remain undecided in the race.

Even though the office is non-partisan, Tuchman has received a great deal of support from Republicans — including former Gov. George Deukmejian and Ron Unz, with whom she co-wrote Proposition 227. Eastin’s backers include former Apple Computer chief John Scully and Charles Schwab. According to the most recent campaign-finance reports for the period ending Sept. 30, Tuchman had raised about $430,000 compared with Eastin’s $1.4 million.

For all their differences, there are issues on which Eastin and Tuchman agree. Both support class-size reduction, the statewide school bond measure, Proposition 1A, and the establishment of higher standards for what students should know and be able to do. They both oppose social promotion, the common practice of moving students along from one grade to the next whether or not they have made academic progress.

Voucher-like proposal

However, they split decidedly on issues such as “opportunity scholarships.” Tuchman supports Gov. Pete Wilson’s proposal to give parents of students in the lowest performing public schools scholarships they could use at any public or private school. Eastin opposes the use of public funds for private education.

Eastin has been highly critical of Tuchman’s views on vouchers. If Tuchman supports public education then, Eastin says, why does she endorse a program that allows parents to use public money to fund private education?

“We really need to have a test program to see if it works before dismissing it,” Tuchman said.

Yet philosophical differences have not been the focus of the fall campaign. Instead Tuchman has spent much of her time on the stump criticizing Eastin for her management of the department, pointing to two ongoing federal investigations dealing with mismanagement of funds in the adult education and child care programs.

In one, money targeted for English literacy and citizenship programs allegedly was misused. In another, contractors in child care programs are suspected of using state funds for personal business.

“I believe there’s a lot of mismanagement in the department,” Tuchman said.

In a report before the state Board of Education this month Eastin said her office has worked diligently to screen out dishonest contractors in the child care program. She noted that the department worked with the federal government in identifying several of the contractors who were later targets of investigation.

Eastin insists Tuchman lacks the experience to manage a large bureaucracy.

But Tuchman maintains the state needs an “experienced educator” to make schools work again.

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