Eastin facing 4 challengers

Field Poll: A strong favorite for schools chief has not emerged.

In a year when education has dominated the headlines and the platforms of gubernatorial candidates, most voters have yet to decide whom they want to lead the state’s public schools.

Incumbent Delaine Eastin, who faces four challengers, led the field in name recognition in a recent Field Poll. But a majority of voters voiced no preference in the race for the non-partisan position of state superintendent of public instruction.

Facing off against Eastin on next Tuesday’s ballot are Gloria Matta Tuchman, co-author of the anti-bilingual-education initiative, Proposition 227, and three lesser known challengers. The wide field of candidates increases the likelihood of a runoff for the post in November unless Eastin manages to capture a majority.

At stake is the education of 5.5 million students in California public schools.

The superintendent is the highest-ranking school official in the state and is responsible for carrying out statewide education policies. In addition to heading the state Department of Education, the superintendent is a member of the University of California Board of Regents and an ex-officio member of California State University’s board of trustees.

Schools have been the main beneficiaries of a robust state economy for the past couple of years, thanks in part to Proposition 98, which requires that a certain amount of funding must go to schools. The state has pumped billions into high-profile programs such as class-size reductions in the primary grades. Millions of dollars also are being set aside to recruit and train the 200,000 new teachers California is expected to need in the next 10 years.

Still, the state faces significant challenges. Schools are overcrowded now, and by the year 2002, the number of public school students is expected to hit 6 million, including more than 1.5 million who speak little or no English. Department of Education officials estimate at least $20 billion will be needed in the next five years to modernize, retrofit and upgrade classrooms.

The most important task for the state schools chief, though, appears to be restoring confidence in public schools. California ranks near the bottom on national achievement tests. Business leaders complain that not enough students graduate with the skills they need to fill slots in the high-tech world. Some parents say students aren’t learning the basic skills of reading, writing and mathematics.

During the spring campaign, Eastin, 51, has emphasized her accomplishments: carrying out the popular class-size reduction program; co-sponsoring Net Day, the national effort to wire the nation’s school for new technology; and launching her “Challenge School” initiative, which requires schools around the state to adopt high standards in exchange for some freedom from Education Code restrictions.

Eastin’s big push is to increase the amount California spends on its students to the national average — a boost of about $1,000 per student over the next five years. Without that increase, she said, the state risks wiping out all the gains it is only starting to see.

“The profile in courage is not to just talk about education reform,” she said. “The profile in courage is to find the person who will pay for it.”

With the additional funding, Eastin said, she would push to lengthen the school year, upgrade science labs and boost teacher salaries. In addition, she said, she would pay for summer school tutoring, Saturday school and other programs to help students who are failing during the regular school year. Although she has urged the gubernatorial candidates to sign her pledge to boost funding, so far only Al Checchi has done so.

Tuchman, 56, is a teacher and former school trustee from Southern California who ran against Eastin in 1994, placing fifth in a field of 12. Her campaign materials emphasize a return to basics.

Tuchman’s platform reflects many of the same initiatives that Gov. Pete Wilson has listed as his education priorities, from ending social promotion to allowing selected students to use public money to attend private schools.

A runoff between Eastin and Tuchman would set up an interesting contest. Though the two agree on some issues, such as a longer school year, they are almost polar opposites on others.

Tuchman is a leader in the Proposition 227 campaign, contending that bilingual education programs, which teach students in their native language before moving them into English, are a waste. Eastin opposes the initiative.

Tuchman supports “opportunity scholarships,” a modified voucher program that would give students in low-performing schools state money to attend other public or private schools. Eastin opposes them.

Tuchman supports a return to basic skills — phonics-based reading and traditional math. Eastin advocates what she calls a “balanced curriculum.” That includes reading techniques that also emphasize appreciation of books and a math approach that stresses the process a student might go through to get an answer as well as the answer itself.

Other candidates:

. Barbara Carpenter, 63, an educator with private-sector experience who also has served on the San Diego County Board of Education. She supports vouchers for disadvantaged students, a “back to basics” curriculum and downsizing the state and federal departments of education.

. Miles Everett, 66, a former Army officer and college professor who has a doctorate in history from the University of California-Berkeley. Everett argues that parents need to cut the time their children spend watching television, and the state should focus on improving the quality of teachers.

. Mark Isler, 50, a former teacher who is currently president of Distributorland Inc., a company that distributes food and beverage products throughout California. He has a master’s degree from Loyola Marymount University. Isler supports vouchers and calls for ending programs such as bilingual education, whole language and “new math.”

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