School & District Management

Outspoken California Schools Chief Leaves Office With Mixed Reviews

By Joetta L. Sack — October 09, 2002 3 min read
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As Delaine Eastin winds down her eighth and final year as California’s elected state schools chief, a mixed legacy is taking form.

One of the country’s best-known state superintendents, Ms. Eastin has been a target of conservatives for her brand of liberal policies, while her outspokenness has gotten her into trouble with two governors, including a fellow Democrat.

At the same time, she shepherded the state education department through a host of major policy shifts, from lowering class sizes to implementing a new accountability system and a controversial bilingual education law.

Her job entails overseeing a domain that encompasses 6.1 million K-12 students, more than 40 percent of the total state’s $78 billion budget, and 1,600 employees.

“When I took office, there were no standards, and no serious movement to get standards, no tests, and no talk of accountability,” she said in a recent interview here.

Ms. Eastin doesn’t take all the credit for instituting the state’s testing and accountability program or other education policies, though she says she’s happy with what she sees as strong progress.

“If you’d told me we’d have all this seven and a half years ago, I would have been amazed,” she said. “Now, I wish we had more.”

Others are inclined to give Ms. Eastin a pat on the back for her role in the changes.

Kevin Gordon, the executive director of the California Association of School Business Officials, said Ms. Eastin doesn’t give herself enough credit for pushing programs such as smaller classes, a fiscal- accountability program for schools, and an academic-accountability system built around state standards.

“The entire standards and accountability system we have in California has Delaine’s fingerprints all over it,” he said.

Diminished Position

A former state legislator who was famous for speaking out against education budget cuts, Ms. Eastin beat out a crowded field of candidates to first win the job of state superintendent of public instruction in 1994.

Though she is a Democrat, California’s elections for state chief are officially nonpartisan. This year, state Sen. Jack O’Connell and Anaheim school board president Katherine H. Smith are vying for her job.

After getting elected eight years ago, Ms. Eastin faced a new challenge: dealing with then-Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, who had an education agenda of his own. Many of their squabbles went public. For example, he wanted to end bilingual education. She supported it. State voters in 1998 approved a ballot measure targeting such instruction.

Still, the two worked together to marshal a statewide effort to lower class sizes in kindergarten through 3rd grade, one of Mr. Wilson’s major policy initiatives.

Later, she sparred with members of her own party when she refused to endorse Gray Davis in the 1998 primary for governor. The spat seemed to tarnish their relationship. Although the schools chief and now-Gov. Davis are more likely to agree these days, the two are not considered to be close pals.

Ms. Eastin said tension is inevitable between two elected officials who share some responsibilities. Shortly after the 1998 elections, she met with Mr. Davis’ transition team, which helped ease his “chilliness,” she said.

“He’s been evenhanded with me and my staff; I think it’s gotten much better,” she said of the relationship.

Even some sympathetic observers say her combative leadership style has helped diminish what was already the state superintendent’s shrinking role in policymaking, and that may be a part of her legacy.

Michael W. Kirst, an education professor at Stanford University and a co-director of the research organization Policy Analysis for California Education, said her brand of leadership further alienated and weakened the once-powerful California Department of Education.

“The department is worse off when she exits than it was when she entered,” asserted Mr. Kirst, who added that he usually shares Ms. Eastin’s beliefs.

While the state schools chief’s job was once seen as the prime leverage point on school policy, it has been crowded out by activist governors and their appointed education secretaries. The state school board also has more say in policy decisions.

The superintendent’s role, while visible, mainly is to oversee the implementation of policies made by others. And it may change again. A master plan under study by lawmakers would convert the superintendent into an inspector general for education.

Although many supporters have encouraged Ms. Eastin to run for another office, she’s tired of political life. She plans to continue her work in education through a foundation or university.

“I don’t want to be just an elected official—I want to work in education,” she said. “I [ran for office] for all the right reasons, and I don’t regret it.”

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