Dreamer, Doer, Gubernatorial Candidate: A Profile of Delaine Eastin

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The value of education has been a persistent theme in the life of Delaine Eastin. It has served not only as a moral and spiritual touchstone for her vision of a good life well-lived, but also as a highly practical ticket to increased opportunity and effectiveness in a rough-and-tumble political world that has not been historically noted for its hospitality to women.

Now, 14 years after she was termed out of office as the first (and still only) female California State Superintendent of Public Instruction, she has another educational objective on her mind: to convince the state’s voters she is their best option to advance their interests as governor come 2018.

Eastin will head into the Democratic Party primary campaign as a likely underdog against better known and well financed opponents. But she holds a prominent ace in the hole: She has run for office eight times in her career, and her scorecard as she commences her ninth reads: 8-0.

That’s right: eight elections, and victory speeches to cap each one. About her ninth she offers this: “We are in this to win. People dismiss me at their peril.”

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At 69 years old, Eastin could easily enough be lauded for her great past contributions to Californians and their schoolchildren while beginning to retreat from the hurly burly of public life. She could sit on a board or two, plant tulips in her garden and perhaps write a memoir chronicling her rise to power and influence in the male-dominated halls of the state capital.

Instead, she is already keeping a relentless schedule that sees her criss-crossing the state’s highways from one gathering to the next, doing the kind of retail politicking that, even in a state the size of California, is fundamental to building a base of support. It is an effort she hopes will serve her well when the more intensively focused media glare begins to light up the race in 2018.

Having visited all 58 counties during her tenure as the state’s education boss from 1995-2003, Eastin well remembers what it means to voters when politicians take leave of the television screen and mass mailers to mingle with voters in real time. “I heard from a principal in the far end of the state recently who told me, ‘You showed up at my school! It meant the world to me. But you also talked to the kids, and even the custodian!’”

 

“The teacher had me leading a reading group. It was good for my leadership skills, but I wasn’t getting the attention I needed. So my dad had us move to San Carlos, where there were 20 kids to a class. It was a life-changing experience.”

 

That willingness to rub elbows across every strata of class, race, and culture likely has many roots, not the least of them Eastin’s modest upbringing as the daughter of a Naval chief petty officer father and sales clerk mother.

Hank Eastin moved his family around the country on various assignments before retiring to become a blue collar machinist and shop steward in northern California. Deprived of his own education by the travails of The Great Depression, he harbored an intense drive to make sure his own children would obtain all its benefits.

The love of learning actually started with him, as when he offered Delaine and her older brother Danny 50 cents a week for basic allowance but a dollar for every poem they would commit to memory.

“My father could recite the entire Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,” Eastin remembers, referring to the epic poem from ancient Persia that runs to thousands of lines. He was a natural born teacher who always preached to us that you have to do things right.”

The Eastins had settled and figured to stay in San Francisco by the time Delaine turned 7 years old,  but another move soon became imminent. “There were 44 kids in the class,” she recalls. “I was one of the better readers, so the teacher had me leading a reading group. It was good for my leadership skills, but I wasn’t getting the attention I needed. So my dad had us move to San Carlos, where there were 20 kids to a class. It was a life-changing experience.”

It was the first of two such dramatic events in Eastin’s early education, the second being her acceptance to UC Davis as a college student.

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With the family short of money and Eastin unable to take out a student loan on her own as a female even though males her age were granted that privilege, her parents had to apply for a conventional loan at a much higher interest rate. When her mother wondered whether they could afford the financial burden, her father replied, “We’ll sell the house if we have to.”

Years later, when she was sworn in as Superintendent of Public Instruction, Eastin held the ceremony at Britain Acres Elementary School in San Carlos, then repeated the gesture with her second term swearing-in held at UC Davis.

Two alma maters, honored in the most powerful symbolic way she could muster. It presaged what became a tireless life of advocacy for the great personal and societal good wrought by education.

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Propelled by her personal experience and data supporting the benefits of less crowded classrooms, Eastin set about her first term trying to convince Republican Governor Pete Wilson to support radically reduced class sizes and help propel a bill to that effect through the legislature. At the beginning of August 1996, he relented, and got a bill passed that limited class sizes to 20 students in the primary grades. School openings were all of six weeks away.

What followed was a plunge into the whirlwind on a project that sensibly should have had a two-year lead time rather than 45 days. The bill gave her no additional staff members to administer a $1 billion fast-track program, but Eastin rode a tidal wave of positive response from the state’s teachers while putting her well-honed skills as a former community organizer and corporate planner to good use. She worked nearly around the clock overseeing thousands of matters big and small. Among the most visible on the highways was her securing of exemptions to allow double-wide tractor trailers to transport the necessary portable classrooms to schools all over the state without being ticketed by the Highway Patrol.

Out of it all came a kind of monumental achievement in California education that is still reverberating these decades later.

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The class size accomplishment followed by a year Eastin’s  pioneering of a “Net Day” to wire the state’s schools for the Internet, which drew some 30,000 volunteers (initial optimistic hopes were for 500-600). The venture was so successful it was copied nearly nationwide and in 40 countries around the world. Vice President Al Gore was impressed enough that he went on to suggest the “e-tax” that is still on phone bills as a chief financial underpinning for helping the nation’s schools keep pace with the digital era.

“Education made America great, kind and good,” Eastin says. “One time I was debating in a group including (former U.S. Secretary of Education) Lamar Alexander on whether the federal government had a role in education. I just read them the preamble to the Constitution, in which children—our ‘posterity’—is the only interest group mentioned.”

The dreamers who spoke to and acted upon the interests of that posterity in the past continue to animate Eastin today. “Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862, which eventually resulted in colleges in all 50 states,” she says. “He was in a terrible war at the time that was not going well. But he knew how important it was. Franklin Roosevelt signed the G.I. Bill and the Federal-Aid Highway Act in 1944—we were not winning the war then!

“Both these men had the courage, vision and heart to see beyond their time, and to use public policy to enhance society, which is its proper role. We need to dream in that same way to make California golden again.”

By Andrew Hidas

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Editor’s Note: See the You Tube video below for Ms. Eastin’s opening remarks at a Senses Cultural- sponsored presentation featuring author, women’s rights activist and Mt. Everest mountaineer Sara Safari. An excerpt from Ms. Eastin:

“My thanks to Tata Monfared for the invitation to join you tonight. I’m the former California Superintendent of Public Instruction and a proud resident of the city of Davis, a community that is working to celebrate the arts and supports the education of its children. We who live here are grateful to this organization, Senses Cultural, and you who are dedicated to keeping the arts and culture in our schools and in our community. Your commitment to creating ‘…a peaceful and healthy environment by fostering understanding through sharing arts and ideas across the globe’ is brilliant and oh so timely. Your additional support for children with autism is also to be celebrated.”

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