Negotiating for the Schools

The state school chief's office is less powerful than it once was, but the campaign to fill it is still fierce.

Who will replace outgoing Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin as the head of California’s public schools? In a state where voters consistently rank education as their number one concern, you might expect a political catfight. But the supe’s powers have been somewhat watered down since a 1993 court ruling turned any policy-formation responsibilities over to a Board of Education and education secretary appointed by the governor, making the superintendent an official who rules by negotiation, rather than fiat.

Nevertheless, it’s still an influential job; the superintendent guides state policy on hot-button issues like charter schools, school vouchers, and standardized testing, as well as performing the more quotidian tasks of overseeing the Department of Education’s sixteen hundred employees and sitting on the University of California’s Board of Regents. Although all of the candidates this year readily self-identify as either Democrats or Republicans, this is technically a non-partisan race, meaning that if one candidate takes home more than fifty percent of the vote this March, there will be no rematch in November.

Eastin has joined most of the state’s teachers’ unions in throwing her support behind state senator Jack O’Connell (D-San Luis Obispo). Termed out after eight years in the Senate, which followed six terms as a state assemblyman as well as several years as a high school teacher, O’Connell is the Dems’ anointed candidate and has the best-stocked war chest. Since the office offers few direct powers, an effective superintendent must excel at getting school-friendly bills through the legislature, and O’Connell has plenty of education legislation to his name. He is probably most famous for his 1996 class-size reduction bill, which reduced kindergarten through third-grade classes to twenty students per teacher. He authored the bill that established a high school exit exam (to be implemented in 2004) as well as legislation that raised salaries for beginning teachers. O’Connell also led the charge for last election’s Proposition 39, which lowered the vote necessary to pass a school bond from a two-thirds majority to fifty-five percent, making it easier to pass new school improvement measures.

O’Connell advocates expanding class-size reduction programs to high schools and the upper primary grades, raising salaries to attract new teachers so that further class-size reduction does not result in a shortage of instructors, boosting student performance through summer school and after-school tutoring programs, providing better training for teachers and administrators, and funding $30 billion in school construction bonds over the next six years. Like all the candidates on the ballot his year, O’Connell supports locally controlled charter schools with limited state oversight; however, he has written legislation giving the state tighter control over home-study charter schools. Unlike the other candidates, he is strongly philosophically opposed to school vouchers. “I would never support a measure that takes money away from our public schools,” he says. He believes the state should provide financial resources for improving school safety, but individual schools should decide what measures they want to implement.

His strongest competition comes from Lynne Leach (R-Walnut Creek) a termed-out state assemblywoman who has represented the 15th District since 1996; she has served as the vice-chair of the Assembly’s education committee and sat on the K-12 Master Plan for Education Committee. Leach also runs her own consulting business and was formerly the head of Walnut Creek’s Chamber of Commerce. While her education legislation record is not as extensive as O’Connell’s, she authored a bill aimed at helping tax-poor school districts by equalizing per-pupil funding amongst districts throughout the state and worked on legislation targeted at ending “social promotion,” passing students to the next grade even if they have not mastered the skills of the previous one.

Despite her grandmotherly exterior, Leach boasts that she has “junkyard dog tenacity” and is willing to shake things up. She calls O’Connell the “status quo” candidate, pointing out that he has received $2 million from state Board of Education president Reed Hastings, including $50,000 that (coincidentally, O’Connell swears) was donated the day after the senator introduced a bill that Hastings helped write. Leach, meanwhile, has been getting flak from O’Connell over her two top donors, William Hume, a big-ticket donor to conservative causes ($100,000) and an organization run by Howard Ahmanson Jr., a conservative Christian leader ($50,000).

Leach firmly supports local control over school districts, saying that the state should establish performance standards and then get out of the way, instead of micromanaging or launching what she calls “legislative missiles” — new programs that may duplicate services that are already being offered. “We devote too much time to experimenting instead of going to the front lines and finding out what the districts need, first,” she says. Leach is a strong supporter of charter schools, and although she has voted for school vouchers in the past, Leach says she did not support Prop. 38, and respects the fact that Californians have voted vouchers down twice. Her other proposals include improving school safety by putting more counselors on campus, partnering low-performing schools with high-performing ones, helping school employees throughout the state share success tactics with one another, increasing the proportion of education funding that is spent in the classroom, and making sure that taxpayers know how school funds are spent.

Katherine Smith, president of the Anaheim Union High School District school board, advocates a back-to-basics approach. “I am not a termed-out legislator,” she says pointedly. “I am a citizen committed to change.” However, Smith does have her Republican creds firmly established: she was a volunteer on the Reagan and Goldwater campaigns, as well as a docent at the Nixon museum. Smith proposes to run a tight ship, including requiring school uniforms, observing a daily moment of silence, establishing “report cards” for parents, and hiring police officers to patrol campuses. She also advocates private-public partnerships to raise funds for schools, paring down the state’s education code, boosting the teaching population by hiring retired people as instructors, and working with the Department of Corrections to provide trade, technology, and literacy courses for inmates. Like her opponents, she supports charter schools with limited state oversight, and says that in lieu of vouchers the state should provide a “a private-type education at public school prices.”

Rounding out the field is Democrat Joseph Taylor, a political consultant from Los Angeles. Taylor, who has never held political office, advocates bringing in experts to provide extra training for teachers, particularly in low-performing schools, and installing metal detectors as security devices.

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