SANTA ANA, Calif. – It was 1985 and first-grade teacher Gloria Matta Tuchman was under orders: Teach bilingual education or risk reprimand.
Matta Tuchman, the child of Mexican-Americans who were adamant that their children speak English, refused.
Exasperated, her principal declared, “Lady, if you don’t like it, you go change the law.”
That was the beginning of Matta Tuchman’s career as an anti- bilingual education activist, a crusade that led her to co-write the June ballot measure that banned bilingual education and propelled her into a runoff with state schools superintendent Delaine Eastin.
How did a little-known schoolteacher in Santa Ana come to threaten an incumbent with the backing of the 285,000-member strong California Teachers Association?
“Nothing I have ever tried in my life is impossible,” Matta Tuchman said, pointing to a handwritten sign declaring “I Can Do Anything!” that is pasted on the wall of her classroom. “That’s exactly the way I feel.”
Proposition 227 was approved by 61 percent of voters June 2 though opposed by Hispanics by a 2-to-1 margin. Matta Tuchman campaigned for the measure with Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz.
The law scrapped California’s 30-year-old bilingual education system and replaced it with a one-year English immersion program based largely on methods Matta Tuchman had been using in her 34 years in the classroom.
Foes of the measure argue that children who don’t speak English must be taught in their primary language if they’re to learn anything. But Matta Tuchman and her supporters contend bilingual education segregates non-English speakers into a second-class system.
Political observers say Matta Tuchman did as well as she did in the primary largely because of her ties to the initiative. She had finished well back in the pack in a previous run against Eastin in 1994.
In the five-way field in June, Eastin got 43 percent of the vote – short of the 50 percent needed to win the race outright – and Matta Tuchman got 26 percent. The contest is officially nonpartisan, though Eastin is a Democrat and Matta Tuchman a Republican.
“There’s no question about it. I’m sure that what gives her just more credibility this time around is her association with that initiative,” says Kevin Gordon, assistant executive director of the California School Board Association.
A Field Poll released in late August indicated Matta Tuchman still has a long way to go to catch up with Eastin, a former councilwoman in Union City, east of San Francisco, and former state assemblywoman. Eastin led Matta Tuchman 37 percent to 18 percent.
Besides having the backing of the powerful teachers’ union, Eastin has won the endorsement of the 15,000-member California Association of School Administrators.
“Neither we nor Delaine believe that public schools are working perfectly right now but Delaine has done a lot in her four years to try to make sure that things improve,” says Bob Wells, assistant executive director of the school administrators group.
Eastin says she wants another term so she can continue to fight for smaller classes and higher standards. She’s a supporter of bilingual education but says she’ll enforce Proposition 227.
On a recent visit to Leadership High, a charter school in downtown San Francisco, she demonstrated the energy and eloquence that are her hallmarks.
She shook hands cheerfully with 15-year-old Sam Chase whose shamrock-green locks were a few shades darker than her avocado pantsuit – “Hi Sam, I’m Delaine” – and swung into a discussion about education and the future.
“I don’t think it’s OK if 30 percent of us make it and 70 percent of us don’t,” she said.
At the other end of the state, Matta Tuchman was putting her teaching philosophies into action at Taft Elementary School on a recent afternoon.
Chattering among themselves in Spanish, most of the youngsters whipped through their assignment of tracing and coloring. But not 6- year-old Hung, who arrived from Vietnam three months ago.
Head down as he carefully traced the number 5, he didn’t look up when Matta Tuchman told students to take out their crayons. But as he heard other students reaching into their baskets, he quickly followed suit.
When Matta Tuchman told students to write down their names on a sheet of paper, he didn’t move until she walked up behind him, pointed to his name on a card on his desk, then tapped the blank paper and repeated the instruction. “I make sure that I explain and show,” Matta Tuchman said.
At the end of the day, a Vietnamese-speaking aide spent a few moments with Hung, explaining some of the day’s lessons. Such bilingual classroom aides are permitted under Prop 227. “Tell him he did a good job,” Matta Tuchman told the aide.
Matta Tuchman is something of a legend in her district. After she and three colleagues refused to teach bilingual ed, they were reprimanded by their principal. But they appealed to the parents in the district and prevailed. Matta Tuchman never had to teach the method she abhors.
The principal who reprimanded them is long gone; these days, a glass case in the lobby of Taft holds plaques marking Matta Tuchman’s achievements alongside the sporting trophies.
Matta Tuchman questions her opponent’s willingness to enforce Prop 227. “Implementation, that’s what people are asking me now. Why isn’t it being implemented the way the initiative was written?” she said.
Civil rights groups are in federal court trying to block the measure, and some school districts have filed state lawsuits for district-wide exemptions.
And Matta Tuchman’s zest for a fight hasn’t waned. “They’re ready for a change in this state,” she said. “That’s very evident.”