With one week to go before election day, the quarrelsome race between incumbent Delaine Eastin and challenger Gloria Matta Tuchman for state schools chief has come down to a war of television ads — now that each has the money to pay for them.
A surprise $500,000 contribution to Tuchman from David Packard, heir to the Hewlett-Packard fortune, puts the first-grade teacher within striking distance of capturing the state’s top school job. The money is the largest single contribution ever given to any California candidate.
“I am announcing a major personal financial contribution to Gloria’s campaign to allow her to match, one for one, the television time purchased by her opponent, Delaine Eastin,” Packard said.
Two other conservative billionaires have also paid the bulk of Tuchman’s $1 million campaign: banking heir Howard Ahmanson and Wal-Mart heir John Walton.
Eastin has amassed $1.9 million to run the most expensive campaign for superintendent in state history, financed with help from the Democratic Central Committee, organized labor and the state’s major education associations.
Eastin takes to the airwaves today, while Tuchman ads were set to begin Saturday.
At stake is who should lead the nation’s largest school system, with 5.7 million students and the administration of a $40 billion budget, into the next century.
The $111,000, four-year post is as critical as that of an army general, who must enforce discipline as well as be an inspirational leader. Yet unlike many other states, California’s schools chief makes no educational policy decisions, has no vote on the state Board of Education, and has the final word on virtually no school matter of substance in California.
So exactly how the state superintendent influences curriculum, school rules and educational policy depends largely on the superintendent’s own personality — and how well she gets along with other key decisionmakers in Sacramento: the governor, his appointed Board of Education, and the Legislature.
The disagreements between Eastin and Tuchman underscore the fact that for voters, the choice boils down to ideological differences as distinct as east versus west.
“I’m for back-to-basics,” said Tuchman, a first-grade teacher and former school board member in Tustin in Orange County. “The three Rs. Getting children to read, write, add, subtract, multiply and divide and speak in English so that they can stay in school and actually read their diploma.”
Tuchman supports spending up to half of the state’s public education budget, about $3,000 per pupil, on tuition vouchers at private or religious schools, she said. She would revisit the legality of making condoms available in high schools and said students should be prohibited from taking sex education classes without parental permission.
Superintendent Eastin says she is for “basics plus.”
“We need basics, but we also need to teach children higher-order thinking skills, analytical skills, develop their creativity and have the technology to prepare them to participate in the 21st century workforce,” she said.
Eastin opposes spending public dollars on private tuition vouchers, and said sex education should be available to all students.
It has been an angry race so far, with Tuchman mocking Eastin’s African American and gay supporters, and Eastin charging Tuchman with racism and homophobia. Each has accused the other of outright lies.
The sniping continued during the weekend as the Eastin campaign considered Tuchman’s newfound financial fortune.
“This is an attempt at a hostile takeover of our public schools by a billionaire boys club,” said Cliff Staton, Eastin’s campaign manager. “The question we’re all asking is what interest these three billionaires have in a first-grade teacher from Santa Ana. The truth is, they have no interest in her. They want to privatize California’s public schools.”
All three support spending public education money on private and religious school tuition vouchers.
In an attempt to distance Tuchman from the far-right politics of Ahmanson and Walton, her campaign manager, Jon Fleischman, emphasized that Packard supports the idea of beginning with a pilot voucher program.
Education watchers generally see Eastin as a well-connected insider who pushed early and hard to lower elementary class size and develop statewide academic standards. Bruce Fuller, co-director of the independent research group Policy Analysis for California Education, said Eastin’s influence on those issues was overlooked when Wilson, with his higher media profile, associated himself with those reforms six months after she raised them.
But as an insider, Eastin, a former assemblywoman, has misjudged popular opinion in key areas like bilingual education, Fuller said.
“She chaired the Assembly education committee, which refused to move forward any moderate reform bill on bilingual education. They were very responsive to the bilingual constituency and were insulated from how anxious people were for reform,” Fuller said.
Tuchman’s ability to tap into public sentiment became evident during the wildly successful campaign for Proposition 227, which she co-authored.
“But whether an inexperienced populist will be able to work within the corridors of Sacramento to effectively move the Legislature and a rookie governor remains the biggest question,” said Fuller.
The most basic interpretation of the superintendent’s job calls for the schools chief to serve as a workhorse elected to carry out the commands of the Board of Education.
But few superintendents have been content to do only that. Most have used the position to vigorously lobby the Board of Education, governor and lawmakers on matters ranging from class size to budgets to private tuition vouchers.
When persuasion has failed, some have pushed for legislation, rallied support among educators, and even taken their case to court.
A case in point was former Superintendent Bill Honig, who in 1991 urged then-Controller Gray Davis to authorize a $19 million bailout of the bankrupt Richmond school district in western Contra Costa County. Honig then took Governor Pete Wilson to court in a successful bid to prevent Wilson from blocking the bailout and closing the Richmond district’s schools six weeks early.
The courtroom has proven so effective for voteless superintendents that when Wilson cut $8 million from Eastin’s budget this summer, he said he would try to restore it only if the superintendent gave up her department’s independent legal representation.
“The primary role of the superintendent is to use the bully pulpit,” said Eastin, who has also turned to the courts. In 1995, she and the California Teachers Association successfully sued Wilson to keep him from forcing schools to repay a $2.3 billion state loan.
More recently, however, Eastin has been unable to convince the Board of Education and Wilson that bilingual education has value, that a new state achievement test should reflect new academic standards before being administered, or that forcing children who do not speak English to take the test in English is useless.
Challenger Tuchman criticizes Eastin’s outspokenness and says she sees the post in a less activist light. In particular, Tuchman accuses Eastin of failing to properly implement the new law, which Eastin opposed.
“The state Board of Education makes the policy, and it’s up to the state superintendent to make sure the policies are implemented,” Tuchman said. “That is the role. To carry out the board’s point of view.”