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Published in Print: October 28, 1998, as Calif. School Chief's Race a Study in Contrasts

Calif. School Chief's Race a Study in Contrasts

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When Californians vote for their state schools chief next week, they will pick between two candidates as different as the state's dramatic Pacific coastline and tranquil redwood forests.

Incumbent Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin is the longtime Democratic politician who spent much of her current term butting heads with retiring Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. She is promising to lobby for more school spending and smaller classes in all primary grades, and against vouchers, if she's returned for a second term.

Gloria Matta Tuchman is a Santa Ana 1st grade teacher and registered Republican who co-directed last spring's successful campaign in support of Proposition 227, the ballot measure aimed at dramatically scaling back bilingual education in California. She backs vigorous enforcement of that law and wants a voucher program for students in low-performing schools and back-to-basics curricula.

But as Nov. 3 nears, it's becoming harder for the candidates to get their divergent messages on the airwaves in a campaign season with high-profile races for governor and U.S. Senate, and still more ballot measures.

"It's an important race, but it's not that highly visible," Gary Hart, the director of the California State University Institute for Education Reform, based in Sacramento, said of the chief's election. "It's unfortunate. The public says [education] is the number-one issue."

Election 1998 Round-Up
When Election Day rolls around next Tuesday, Nov. 3, voters in many states will head to the polls. This year, there are 36 governor's races, nine state schools chiefs' contests, and more than 6,000 state legislative elections. Voters will also be asked to decide local races and state ballot-initiative questions with implications for schools.

Different Visions

The winner will oversee the nation's largest state K-12 school system, a behemoth network of 5.7 million students in 8,000 schools. She will also carry out policy set by the gubernatorially appointed state school board and the legislature, while directly managing the 1,438-employee state education department and its $26 million budget.

Ms. Eastin, a former four-term state assemblywoman from the San Francisco Bay area, has led in recent polls. But the undecided vote appears to be huge, and her re-election is not guaranteed.

According to a poll by the Field Institute, an independent public-opinion research firm in San Francisco, Ms. Eastin held a 28 percent to 18 percent lead over Ms. Tuchman earlier this month. But a whopping 54 percent of the 703 respondents to the poll, which had a margin of error of 5.4 percentage points, said they were undecided.

Both candidates are aggressively trying to break through the din of other state races to reach voters. In a debate broadcast by KQED-FM and KRON-TV in San Francisco, they offered distinctly different visions of California schools.

Both candidates argued for high academic standards. But Ms. Tuchman, who has been endorsed by the California Republican Party for the officially nonpartisan post, said Ms. Eastin should share the blame recent lackluster showings on tests, particularly the state's new standardized exam. ''If you look at test scores and want to know why the children are failing, it's because we're not teaching them the basics of the three R's of reading, writing, and math," Ms. Tuchman said.

Ms. Eastin, who has the endorsement of the California Teachers Association, the state affiliate of the National Education Association, said scores are inching up, and added: "After we teach them the basics, then what? We're not creating jobs for kids that only know arithmetic. We have to teach them trigonometry, and it has to be done soon."

Ms. Tuchman also backs Proposition 8, a measure on next week's ballot that would create a state inspector of schools, guarantee funds to lower class sizes in grades K-3, and give new power to parent-led school site councils. Ms. Eastin opposes the measure, in part, because it would shift the final say on curriculum decisions from school boards to the councils. She said that idea has not been successful in other locales.

In an interview, Ms. Eastin said she would use more than $1 million still in her campaign accounts last week to buy air time and reach voters by mail before Nov. 3.

Mike Madrid, the political director for the California GOP, predicts one of the lowest voter turnouts ever for next week's balloting. He added that the party has not given Ms. Tuchman cash donations, but noted that it features her in Republican mailings. He said public misgivings about the performance of the state's schools could tip the vote Ms. Tuchman's way.

"Heaven help you if you have the label of an incumbent this year as a superintendent of public instruction," Mr. Madrid added. "Education is the number-one concern this year among voters, and they feel it's broken."

Vol. 18, Issue 9, Pages 20,22

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