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State Schools Chief Race Starts Early : Elections: Pasadena's Wilbert Smith, a supporter of the voucher initiative, joins the fray. Teachers union holds interviews to decide whom it will endorse.


The official list of candidates has not been finalized, but the contest to head California's 5.2-million-student public school system is heating up.

Widely viewed in its early stages as a battle between two leaders of the state's education Establishment, the race for the nonpartisan superintendent of public instruction has attracted several other contenders.

On Tuesday, a black community college instructor and businessman whose support for the school voucher initiative helped cost him his seat on the Pasadena Board of Education returned to his South-Central Los Angeles elementary school to launch his campaign as the ultimate outsider.

Wilbert Smith, whose cousin died in a classroom shooting at Fairfax High School last year, said he is the only candidate to have personally experienced the effects of school violence. He promised to give parents and students a larger voice in which campuses they attend and how they are run. His advocacy of the voucher initiative, which would have provided tax money for parents to spend on public or private schools, sets him apart from most other educators, who fought the measure.

Smith's announcement came as the California Teachers Assn. prepared to settle on its candidate. This week, the board of the state's largest teachers union recommended that the endorsement be given to Assemblywoman Delaine Eastin, a Fremont Democrat who heads the Assembly Education Committee. The organization, one of the biggest political fund-raisers in the state, will make its endorsement decision at its state council meeting Sunday.

Among several other candidates interviewed by the teachers union was Maureen DiMarco, another Democrat, who is Republican Gov. Pete Wilson's secretary for child development and education. DiMarco, a former Garden Grove school board member, and Eastin are considered the front-runners.

If no candidate wins a majority of the votes in June, the top two vote-getters will compete in a November runoff.

Several of DiMarco's and Eastin's competitors are hoping that voters will view the two women as essentially similar cogs in the state's public education system, a system they say needs to be overhauled by outsiders.

The filing period closed Friday, but because the secretary of state's office must compile a roster from the counties, it does not expect to have a complete list of candidates until the end of the month.

However, several campaigns have begun.

Joseph Carrabino, a fiscally conservative, outspoken former president of the State Board of Education, who often clashed with former schools chief Bill Honig, opened a campaign office in Brentwood this week and hired Sacramento-based consultant Sal Russo to oversee his race.

Carrabino, who plans to announce his candidacy in a few days, said his experience as a business consultant and former teacher at UCLA's management school makes him qualified to improve efficiency and cut waste.

He said he favors school choice systems that include private school vouchers but opposed the voucher initiative on last fall's ballot because it "was done too hastily and had logistical problems." Carrabino also wants decision-making authority regarding textbooks and curricula returned to local school boards.

One of the first to begin campaigning was Gloria Matta Tuchman, an Orange County teacher and school board president who has long led efforts to overturn the state's system of bilingual education for the growing numbers of students who speak little or no English. Tuchman began her quest for the office in 1992.

Perhaps most iconoclastic of all is Smith, a Republican who spent four years on the Pasadena school board before being defeated last spring by an opponent who made an issue of his lead role in the pro-voucher campaign.

Standing outside Lenecia B. Weemes School, surrounded by his wife and children, who attend Pasadena public schools, Smith offered himself as an up-by-the-bootstraps candidate who can relate to the thousands of poor, minority students who struggle in California classrooms.

The eldest of 10 children, abandoned by his father while a teen-ager, Smith graduated from Los Angeles' Fremont High School and worked his way through Cal State Dominguez Hills. He holds a master's degree in special education, has taught business courses at Pasadena City College and was appointed by then-Gov. George Deukmejian to the board that oversees the state's 107-campus system of community colleges.

"I am running because the politicians and the bureaucrats have not demonstrated the leadership or the courage to improve our schools," Smith said.

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