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Famed Teacher Being Urged to Run for State Schools Post

Education: A group wants math instructor Jaime Escalante to oppose Supt. Delaine Eastin. He is expected to announce decision next week.

September 13, 1997|RICHARD LEE COLVIN | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

A state legislator and an informal group of educators linked by a desire for a return to traditional teaching methods is working to draft famed math teacher Jaime Escalante for the job of superintendent of California's public schools.

Spawned by conservative state Assemblyman Steve Baldwin (R-La Mesa), the movement has begun faxing letters to Escalante to persuade him to run against state Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin.

Escalante could not be reached for comment, but he reportedly has agreed to decide next week whether to enter the race.

As a teacher at Garfield High School in Los Angeles, Escalante transformed a lackluster math program into a nationally known powerhouse in which more than 60% of the calculus students managed to pass the tough Advanced Placement exam. His story was the basis for the 1988 movie "Stand and Deliver," which turned Escalante into an educational icon symbolizing the value of hard work.

Among those seeking to persuade Escalante to become a candidate for the June primary is a Cal State Los Angeles math professor who once taught Escalante. The professor, Wayne Bishop, is an outspoken opponent of modern math teaching methods that downplay exercises such as memorizing multiplication tables.

In a widely distributed e-mail, Bishop argues that Escalante would make a better superintendent than Eastin because she "lacks the willingness to work toward" demanding academic standards, though giving them lip service.

Were he to run, Escalante would have instant name recognition, probably exceeding that of Eastin, a former legislator winding up a four-year term. In person though, many people might expect to see actor Edward James Olmos, who played him in the movie, instead of the older, shorter 66-year-old Escalante, who speaks English with a Bolivian accent.

Cliff Staton, who is Eastin's campaign consultant, said Escalante's name makes him a formidable opponent. But he said, "obviously, it's a lot different teaching in a classroom and running the state school system."

Staton said Eastin spent more than $800,000 in the primary when she ran four years ago and in June reported having already collected $150,000 for her reelection. Although wealthy conservatives are said to be ready to back Escalante financially, Proposition 208 limits individual donations to $1,000 each.

Having alienated many of his fellow teachers with his unwillingness to compromise, Escalante left Garfield in 1991 for Hiram Johnson High School in Sacramento. In an interview with the Washington Post earlier this year, Escalante said he's more low-key than earlier in his career and considering retirement. "I am afraid in these last stages to screw up my reputation," he told a reporter.

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