BERKELEY, Calif. — A first-grade teacher and anti-bilingual education crusader got a whopping $500,000 donation from computer company heir David W. Packard, revving up her longshot campaign to unseat California’s schools chief.
The donation from Packard, son of the co-founder of computer giant Hewlett-Packard, was prompted by the multimillionaire’s belief in Gloria Matta Tuchman’s teaching methods, particularly phonics-based reading instruction.
Matta Tuchman, a Republican, is challenging Delaine Eastin, a Democrat and former assemblywoman seeking a second, four-year term in the nonpartisan office. A recent poll showed Eastin leading 28 percent to 18 percent, with 54 percent undecided. Matta Tuchman is best known for her efforts on behalf of Proposition 227, the successful June ballot measure that aimed to scrap bilingual education.
The contribution brings Packard into a small but growing group of wealthy men trying to reshape California education. Matta Tuchman’s two other big contributors are Home Savings and Loan heir Howard Ahmanson, $200,000, and Wal-Mart heir John Walton, $35,000, both big school voucher advocates.
“This is essentially a hostile takeover of the public schools by three billionaires,” Eastin campaign consultant Cliff Staton said Friday.
Other rich donors to education causes include software millionaire Ron Unz, who co-sponsored Proposition 227 with Matta Tuchman, and Spanish-language television magnate Jerry Perenchio, who put $1.5 million into opposing it.
The Packard donation gives Matta Tuchman about $1 million in contributions compared to Eastin’s $1.4 million, $250,000 of which came from the powerful 280,000-member California Teachers Association.
Matta Tuchman campaign manager Jon Fleischman said the donation simply evens the odds of an education outsider upsetting an incumbent, by allowing Matta Tuchman to buy crucial TV ads. “Previously there was just no way for us to keep up with Delaine Eastin,” he said.
Until Thursday’s contribution, Packard had made only one other political donation — $1,000 to a Silicon Valley congressman, Republican Tom Campbell. Packard told the San Jose Mercury News his donation was prompted by a strong interest in promoting phonics-based reading instruction.
Phonics has been a hot topic in California, where the move toward whole language theory a decade ago was blamed by opponents for dragging down reading scores. Under whole language, children learn entire words through context and pictures; literature and early writing are stressed over spelling and grammar.
Phonics is the traditional method that teaches children the sounds of letters or groups of letters and has them sound out words.
Eastin has criticized Matta Tuchman for depending on money from Ahmanson and Walton, both strong supporters of school vouchers, a system under which government money is used for private tuition.
Matta Tuchman opposed a failed 1993 ballot measure proposing vouchers, but now says she is for vouchers targeted at students in the state’s worst schools.
Packard said he does not advocate the wholesale adoption of any voucher program, but supports experimenting with pilot projects to see if they can be of use.
The donation was “probably one of the largest political contributions in California history, at least in terms of contributions to a candidate,” said Kim Alexander, president of the nonprofit California Voter Foundation.
Bruce Cain, a political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said education may draw such big donations because a lot of people have an opinion on how schools should be run — and know they have a powerful teachers’ union to contend with.
“If you’re going to play poker with them, you have to bring the big bucks,” he said.