Is that all there is?

Like many boomers who have tried to change the world, state schools superintendent Delaine Eastin is looking back at what wasn’t accomplished

photo by Larry Dalton

“It’s easy to see the beginning of things and hard to see the ends.”
—Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Step off the elevator at the fifth floor and walk down the long hallway lined with bureaucrats’ offices and then enter the executive chamber. Notice that the wall on the left holds multiple rows of officially framed photographs and realize that each of these several dozen prints holds the face of a man who has held the job. At the end of the last row, you arrive at the image of a woman, the first one ever to be responsible for the largest state schools system on earth.

Six million children in California attend schools under her domain. Forty-one percent of the entire state budget pours through her state Department of Education to 1,000 school districts. More than 16,000 employees report to her at state schools headquarters in downtown Sacramento. She is Delaine Eastin, state superintendent of public instruction—smart, crusading, tough as hell and … vaguely disappointed.

When she shakes your hand in greeting, it is familiar but somehow removed. This is not because she lacks humanity, no. It’s because she has learned, as people in politics tend to do, about the importance of building armor, of holding something back. It is a survival mechanism that sometimes helps and sometimes hurts when one is attempting to change the world.

Now you see something important. Propped up near the table where she will talk to you is an architect’s drawing of the Delaine Eastin Elementary School, which will open for business soon in Union City in the Bay Area. You are surprised to see this take-no-prisoners politician actually choke back tears when explaining how the school will contain a world-class school library and an abundant garden for growing vegetables and flowers. You wonder what has triggered her emotions.

But then you get it. Standing before you is a woman, almost 54, who has fought with valor for change throughout a political career that spans more than two decades. She has been moved to tears by the mere fact that some symbol of her contribution will be left standing when she is gone.

Because what else is there?

Eastin, who has no children, served four terms in the state Assembly as an unabashed liberal where she fought the big fights—confronted the tobacco companies, cleaned up toxic landfills, battled for recycling, fought for libraries and school facilities. As superintendent she has helped engineer class-size reduction and introduced standards, school accountability and many other crucial reforms for school kids. She has weathered vehement attacks from ultra-conservatives and been the target of lawsuits from well-meaning progressives. She remains exceedingly proud, no doubt about it, of her contribution and what her “team” of colleagues and employees has accomplished through the years.

But what happens when you learn that dreams are not always fulfilled, that vows are not always kept, that worlds may not be changed as easily as you had imagined?

Though once a likely candidate for governor and, more recently, Congress, Eastin has decided instead to leave public life when her term expires in 16 months. Like the baby boomers she shares a generation with, Eastin has learned, though she does not enjoy admitting it, that changing things for the better in politics is arduous work and often nearly impossible, given the conflicting interests, the lack of resources, the bitter squabbles, the contentious egos, the unforgiving need to raise campaign cash.

“Maybe all people in politics, when they reach my age, have some kind of midlife re-evaluation,” says Eastin. Then she adds, as an afterthought: “I just think we could have done more. I wish we could have done more.”

You are glad she said this because, despite the good efforts of people like Eastin, you know for certain that more needs to be done. As the superintendent freely admits, the California public schools system is a shadow today of what it was a few decades ago and is now mentioned in student achievement rankings alongside poor states like Alabama and Mississippi.

Education experts, like those at the Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), attribute much of the shift to the passage of Proposition 13, the 1978 measure that limited property taxes and shifted the main burden of financing schools to the state. In fact, since that measure was passed, California went from being fifth in per pupil spending to about 40th last year.

And it is no secret that schools in urban, low-income areas tend to suffer especially from an abysmal lack of resources, a deficiency of good teachers and the general ill effects that poverty can have on a student population.

I just think we could have done more.

Eastin’s longtime mentor and friend, state Attorney General Bill Lockyer, posits a theory on the subject: “Change is too slow,” he says. “When you manage these huge institutions in California—like education, transportation, air or water resources—you find out that it’s very, very hard to cause significant change in these giant, glacier-like bureaucracies.”

Eastin describes it in a different way: “In government,” she says, “there’s a tendency to focus on the input and not the outcomes. Did you fill out the paperwork right, rather than did the children learn?”

A liberal through and through, Delaine Eastin took the opportunity to shake the hand of Bill Clinton when he was president.

From a private collection used with permission

You realize suddenly that Eastin’s evolution as a politician and proponent of change in some ways mirrors that of her baby-boomer generation, the group she refers to as “the most fired-up group of dreamers” in history.

What if the generation has not done what it set out to do?

“We were gonna change the world,” says Eastin, “but I think we’ve been timid and haven’t really embraced the big ideas.”

Indeed, it doesn’t take a political-science major to realize, as Eastin points out, that the “big ideas” that once roused the country to solve its problems—the Marshall Plan, the GI Bill, the Social Security Act, the interstate highway system—seem distant memories. No one in modern political life has taken on a project comparable to building, as California did, the greatest public and private university system the world has ever seen. Nothing has been accomplished on the level of the construction of the California Water Project.

“There are some very good people in our generation who have worked hard for justice and truth,” says Eastin, whose office walls hold photographs of her posing with the likes of Bill Clinton and Hillary, Al Gore, Rob Reiner and Geraldine Ferraro. “But overall, I’m disappointed. … There’s no sense of destiny and purpose on the scale that our ancestors had. There’s no courage, there’s no heart.”

As you discuss these matters further with Eastin and consider her journey thus far, you realize this woman has gained a kind of wisdom about the nature of politics and has much to teach about change and spirit and, perhaps, the regrets of an entire generation.

Baby boomers often look back on their younger years and consider them somehow more worthy, more brilliant, more inspiring than the days that came after. So it was with Eastin who, like many in her generation, found herself first moved to get involved in politics because she was excited by such people as John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and “people who do the right thing even when it is not comfortable.”

Not a ‘60s radical during her days as an undergraduate at UC Davis, Eastin loved books and history. An old-fashioned patriot, nonplussed that others might think her sentimental, even corny, Eastin had an early devotion to the founding ideals of the country, the lore of Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and John and Abigail Adams.

After earning a master’s at UC Santa Barbara, she spent a decade teaching and working in private business for Pacific Telesis Group. Then Eastin dived headlong into local politics. Having survived a dysfunctional childhood with an alcoholic mother ("there was chaos but a lot of love,” she explains) and a poetry-reading, working-class father, she arrived in Union City with her then-husband Jack Saunders. The couple bought a $40,000 home in the new town with a GI loan her husband earned for serving in Vietnam. “We created a good community,” she says with obvious nostalgia for “the hard work, the tough decisions, the fun” that marked her early days in politics.

In 1986, Eastin and her husband decided she should run for an Assembly seat in the 20th District, which included parts of Alameda and Santa Clara counties. She won. Soon she was on to the next priority of getting on some key committees (including the Assembly Committee on Education, of course), attempting to make an impact on statewide politics.

Almost immediately, Eastin took on the tobacco industry, sponsoring a bill (back in the days when the tobacco industry had zero taxation) to levy a tax on chewing tobacco, cigars, snuff and pipe tobacco. She remembers the lobbyist from Philip Morris coming into her office, proceeding to do “everything but put a cigar out on my forehead.” But she continued to carry such bills anyway, as well as ones that took up the causes of recycling, environmental cleanup and protection, and school improvement.

It was 1992 when then-Governor Pete Wilson attempted to cut the state’s school budget by $2.3 billion, at a time when California ranked 43rd out of 50 states in per-pupil spending. Outraged, Eastin decided to put up a fight. “Even a dog knows it’s wrong to take from children,” she says. So, along with other Democrats, Eastin proceeded to hold up the budget for over 60 days until finally a compromise sent temporary funds to the schools.

Galvanized by the incident, Eastin decided to run for superintendent, a job that would provide her a formidable bully pulpit for schoolchildren, but not much policy-making authority.

In 1994 she won the office in a heated battle against Wilson’s secretary of education, Maureen di Marco. The first woman ever to hold the superintendent’s job, Eastin entered in the wake of Bill Honig, a maverick reformer famous for his rocky relationships with Republican governors. He had been forced to step down due to conflict-of-interest charges. Eastin came into the post as a peacemaker, but one who was clearly prepared to do battle when necessary. An article in the San Francisco Chronicle at the time quoted Eastin this way: “I feel like a juggler, and I’ve got a watermelon and a flaming arrow and a feather and a water balloon in the air over my head right now.”

Then an extraordinary thing happened.

Immediately after the budget battle of ‘92, the California Teachers Association and Eastin filed a lawsuit against the governor (or, more specifically, his finance director) to get back tobacco tax money that had been a theme of the earlier budget battle, money Eastin and CTA members claimed should have gone to schools all along. When that lawsuit was settled in ‘94 in favor of the plaintiffs, there suddenly existed an astonishing $1.8 billion in new education revenue.

Eastin, now superintendent, proposed that the governor put the funds into class-size reduction in the primary grades, because changing the student-teacher ratio was known to be one of the single best school reforms one could enact. California classrooms in the primary grades (kindergarten through third grade) then averaged a whopping 29 students to a class, when 20 or fewer was optimal. But Wilson did not agree at first, accusing Eastin in front-page news articles of wanting to “throw money at the problem.” He determined instead to give Californians a huge tax cut.

But when the Legislature held firm against the tax break, Wilson basically wound up with a large pot of money earmarked for schools and an “11th hour” embrace of Eastin’s proposal for class-size reduction. Though Wilson got most of the credit for California’s dramatic class-size-reduction program during that era, few behind the scenes doubt that the program was ultimately Eastin’s victory.

Ruth McKenna, superintendent of the New Haven Unified School District and a deputy for the state Department of Education at the time, says Eastin’s ability to succeed at getting class-size reduction is a good example of how she got things done. “Delaine never gives up,” says McKenna. “If one thing doesn’t work, she’ll figure out a different way around to solve the problem. … She always sees the endgame.”

The class-size victory—and the fact that Eastin and her staff succeeded in implementing it in thousands of California schools in the span of only two weeks—demonstrates something important about the politics of change. Though Eastin and others describe the two weeks as “hellacious,” the task was nonetheless accomplished in spite of a multi-layered and dysfunctional school management system and a California political bureaucracy with overlapping jurisdictions and regulations that often collide in a way that is not even slightly in the interest of California schoolchildren.

Eastin, who succeeded in reducing class sizes in primary grades, reads with some of the people she is fighting for, the schoolchildren of California.

Courtesy Of Delaine Eastin Committee

“It was unprecedented,” says Eastin of the class-size-reduction effort. “I told the governor, ‘You have to give me carte-blanche authority to do what I need to do to get things done quickly.'” And, to his credit, Wilson did it. Ultimately, the class-size-reduction effort proved the equation: Good idea plus resources plus political will equals change. Sometimes.

Despite the class-size-reduction victory, the political climate did not favor Eastin, an incumbent, when it came time for re-election in 1998. Polls showed that the public felt discouraged about the state of the schools. Eastin was criticized for allowing her outspoken style to get her into trouble, like the time she was quoted calling Governor Wilson a “knucklehead.” She was not a shoe-in for re-election as others in her office had always been.

In fact, in trying to distance herself from the “incumbent” image, Eastin was embarrassed in court when Judge James T. Ford ruled that she could not describe herself on the ballot as “teacher,” since she hadn’t taught since 1979.

Ultimately, she was forced into a runoff for re-election with a Santa Ana elementary-school teacher, Gloria Matta Tuchman, who had run against her in ‘94 and was bankrolled this time by a handful of conservative millionaires. Tuchman and her supporters had come after Eastin loud and strong, especially with their cry for vouchers and an end to bilingual education.

Few knew that Eastin was undergoing a personal crisis right as the election reached its crescendo. Her 26-year marriage to Jack Saunders was over. The couple, who spent most of the time apart, had grown distant and distracted. They decided on a quick divorce. So Eastin found herself “re-apportioned” out of her Union City home. “It was the most heartbreaking thing that had ever happened to me,” says Eastin.

Suddenly, she found herself in the most embattled chapter, personally and professionally, of her life. Eastin became determined to move quickly into a new home, so she bought one in September ‘98 in Davis, instead of simply settling into life in the Sacramento condo she’d kept closer to work. The day she moved, a group of close friends showed up and “unpacked my furniture and dishes” and hung her pictures. “There were some truly extraordinary people who helped me during that period,” she says.

With Eastin still reeling from the split with her husband and just two weeks left in the campaign, David Packard, conservative son of the founder of Hewlett-Packard, gave Tuchman an unprecedented $500,000. All he would tell the media about his donation was that he “didn’t like” Eastin. The money constituted the largest individual contribution ever made to a California political candidate and came on the heels of several other major contributions, from Home Savings heir Howard Ahmanson ($225,000), Wal-Mart heir John Walton ($55,000), and former state board member William Hume ($120,000).

The purpose of Packard’s last-minute money was to buy TV time and, generally, attack Eastin as a liberal, a “puppet of the teachers’ union” and a supporter of bilingual education. Among other things, opponents assailed Eastin for having a “gay agenda” for the schools because she had listed, in her campaign materials, endorsements from gay organizations and individuals. Ron Unz—the software millionaire made famous for authoring Prop. 227, the successful 1998 ballot initiative that effectively ended bilingual education in California—said Eastin could not be trusted with enforcing the anti-bilingual initiative since she so vehemently opposed it. He called Eastin a “laughingstock” in his newsletter for her view that bilingual education should be taught in California schools.

Cliff Staton, Eastin’s key campaign strategist, put it this way: “That campaign was less about education and students and more about right-wing versus the mainstream.”

“Many of my supporters didn’t know I was in personal crisis at that time,” says Eastin, who managed anyway to put the call out to raise money to defend herself against the attacks. She succeeded. In four days, calling from her new home, she was able to raise enough money to buy her own ads, ones that accused Tuchman of trying to “steal the election” with money from “right-wing” millionaires. In the end, she was lucky to win the contest with a 7 percent margin.

But when it was over, though she had won another term, she was depressed. “I was sad,” she says. “For the first time in my life I didn’t feel very optimistic.” After a long pause she adds: “Divorce is like a death. I don’t think you can go through a loss like that and not experience extraordinary grief.”

Gradually, despite depression, Eastin slowly became aware that the ‘98 election held a silver lining. With Gray Davis entering the scene as California governor, Eastin believed her reform ideals for California schoolchildren might have an improved chance of becoming reality.

But Davis, who supported reform in California schools, had his own education agenda, one that only sometimes mirrored Eastin’s. “She has her own ideas,” says the governor’s spokesman, Steve Maviglio. “She believes strongly that the focus of the reforms should be on low-performing schools, and the governor thinks the reforms should be geared to everyone.”

Eastin admits that Davis has done well for schools since becoming governor: He’s boosted their funding, supported teacher-training programs and provided financial incentives for deserving teachers. Still, she believes a general lack of communication between the governor and the “people in the trenches” like her has been damaging to California school kids.

“I had more meetings with Wilson than I’ve had with Davis,” she says flatly. “I never called Wilson that he didn’t call me back in 24 hours.” In fact, she said as much to the San Francisco Chronicle last month. The reaction from Maviglio was quick and harsh. “If she had something constructive to contribute perhaps he would.”

The comment still smarts. “It was a diss,” Eastin admits. “But gosh, a lot of other people think I have something to say.” After the Chronicle incident, the governor sent Eastin a handwritten note, an implied apology, telling her she was doing a good job. No mention of the unreturned phone calls. No mention of the Maviglio wisecrack.

But an unrepentant Maviglio, who says he suffered “no fallout” from the governor for having made the comment, explains thusly: “The governor didn’t see why he should listen to her agenda when he has his own agenda and the Legislature is behind it. … He has his own secretary of education and other top notch people who are helping him shape policy on the education issue.”

Another challenge arose for Eastin in the spring of 2000, when the American Civil Liberties Union brought a suit against her, the state Department of Education and the state Board of Education on behalf of 70 poor and minority public-school students in two dozen urban schools, mostly in Los Angeles, the Bay Area and Fresno.

The lawsuit, which names Eastin first, basically states that tens of thousands of minority students in California don’t get an equal educational opportunity and attend substandard schools that lack textbooks, trained teachers and clean bathrooms.

As with a new wave of legal cases being filed across the country, the suit accuses the California school system of racial bias. It attempts to shame officials—by attracting media attention and public support—into devoting more attention to correcting the longstanding divide between schools in affluent neighborhoods and poor ones. Now in the discovery phase, the case will most likely go to trial next year, says ACLU attorney Catherine Lhamon.

Eastin’s longtime friend, state Attorney General Bill Lockyer, believes it is “very hard to cause significant change in these giant, glacier-like bureaucracies.”

photo by Larry Dalton

Asked why Eastin is the No. 1 target of the lawsuit, Lhamon says, “As superintendent it is Delaine Eastin’s job to make sure no child goes to school the way many children do. She has a difficult job. But she’s turning a blind eye. … I’d hope and expect she’d be more of a reformist.”

When asked about the case, Eastin responds that the matter is in litigation, that she cannot comment. But then she sighs and says: “I understand the sincerity of people wanting to make schools in low-performing areas better,” says Eastin. “But their approach is … well, it’s the wrong way. I’m not staffed or equipped to do what that lawsuit asks. It’s an underestimate of the importance of local control and an overestimate of available resources at the state level.”

Among other things, the lawsuit holds Eastin responsible for the sorry state of school bathrooms in urban areas. Eastin responds: “How am I gonna be able to check the cleanliness of 8,500 school bathrooms?”

Former board president Monica Lozano, now managing editor of La Opinión, a Spanish-language newspaper in Los Angeles, says she never saw a class or race bias emanating from Eastin. “I never saw a bias. I think on the contrary that Delaine had a very strong sense of the need for diversity.”

Despite her position on the lawsuit, Eastin is the first to agree that many inner-city schools are in a sorry state. “You cannot have been in as many schools as I have been in and not see that we are failing the underachieving schools,” she says.

The pomp, the circumstance, the blue and gold flags fluttering from miles of aisles. You are in the UC Davis Rec Hall in the spring of 2001, and that means another battalion of black-robed college seniors convening at that ritual where society tells them, “Congratulations, now go out there and get ’em!” The graduates are performing waves, like you do at a baseball game, and throwing cloth Frisbees back and forth to each other right up to the time when the keynote commencement speaker begins.

Eastin, also wearing a flowing black academic robe, about three decades from having been a UCD graduate herself, launches into the commencement address. She captures the audience, as she has learned to, with a speeding stream of recitation, full of exhortations, admonishments and quotes from Gandhi, Twain, Jefferson, Adams, Joseph Campbell and Chief Seattle. Eastin, who has something of a reputation as an orator, is trying like mad to convince the graduates to embrace a sense of destiny, of purpose. Maybe one of them will change the world.

In closing, she mentions Tom Brokaw and his book The Greatest Generation, about the wartime parents of the baby boom generation. She thunders her finale: “Be daring and bold! Fall in love with the world. … I think yours could be the greatest generation!”

You realize suddenly that the superintendent has covered the Founding Fathers generation, the Greatest Generation, and has thrown the torch to a future generation. But nowhere is there mention of her own, the largest generation of people in the history of the world to reach maturity at one time.

So what happened to the baby boomers?

“So far, greatness has eluded our generation,” Eastin tells you later. You wonder if this is because change moves too slowly, as Lockyer proposed, or because problems, in an age of acceleration, simply arise too fast. Or perhaps it is because the Vietnam War—the event that stamped the youth-exalting baby boomers with its “we need to change the world” mantra—never did actually get in the way (as most wars in history have) of the generation’s future freedoms and good fortunes. Or perhaps it is simply the baby boomers’ fate to be the first crop of Americans born in a given period to learn that massive social change requires government bureaucracies, and it seems in the very nature of large bureaucracies to run people instead of allowing people to run them.

When you ask Lockyer about the baby boomers, he pops an unexpected question: “Have you seen that movie Wonder Boys?” Particularly, he wants to know if you’ve heard Bob Dylan’s song from it: “I used to care/but things have changed.”

“I’m still committed to changing the world,” Lockyer says. “I plan to burn out, not rust out. … But I’ve seen some disappointment as people age in every walk of life, not just politics.”

“Delaine is like a sister,” he furthers. “I have enormous respect for her integrity and intellect. I see significant changes as a result of her work. But I can understand her having a certain level of frustration.”

I wish we could have done more.

Eastin decided against running for Congress after her term as superintendent ends because she was not anxious to take on an incumbent, Rep. Pete Stark, who now holds the seat she would have competed for. She was even more loathe to tackle the raising of campaign cash, a projected $5 million, that race would have required. Anyway, you can see in her expression that she’s weary of playing politics. “I’m tired of ready, fire … aim,” she says, summing up the lack of foresight and planning that often accompanies political action.

“I’m glad I served and we accomplished a lot. I got to be captain of the team. But I’ve paid a high price,” she says. “I don’t ever want to be anywhere again where I have to compromise in ways that take me off my purpose. … I want to make a difference next time in a way that I think has integrity for me personally.”

When you arrive at Eastin’s home for a final conversation, having learned much already about her journey, you are quick to observe the tranquility that seems to reign here—the rose bushes, the fruit trees, the raised garden beds brimming with vegetables. Pleased to show off her green thumb, the superintendent makes you eat one of her organic yellow tomatoes straight off the vine. In this peaceful setting, you actually believe her when she says she has begun to fight her natural workaholic instincts by taking the time “to read and listen to music and cut the flowers and plant the vegetables and work on my personal soul.”

Asked what she will do when she leaves office at the end of her term, Eastin says she will continue working for children in some new capacity at a university or for a nonprofit. “I’ll never stop fighting for kids and education,” she says simply. “It’s my life’s work.”

But to wish to have done more…

You wonder now if it is irony or destiny that will put this woman out of California elected office exactly as she hits an age where she has nothing to prove, nothing to lose. You wonder why she must leave at the precise time when her experience and wisdom might make her most valuable to the cause of children, the cause of change. And then you realize that perhaps this will be the regret that haunts her entire generation.