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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / GOVERNOR

Checchi Criticized for Comments About Public School Education

April 24, 1998|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Al Checchi's assertion this week that he had ruled out a public school education for his children drew the Democratic gubernatorial candidate into a minefield familiar to President Clinton and many other politicians.

On Thursday, many public school officials and advocates--though not all--took umbrage at Checchi's comments. They noted that as a resident of Beverly Hills, Checchi could have enrolled his children in a top public school. And they said that as a multimillionaire, he had options available to few California parents.

"There's no reason why any parent should feel that his or her child is getting an inferior education because they're going to public school," said Tommye Hutto, spokeswoman for the California Teachers Assn., the state's largest teachers union, which has not endorsed a candidate in the June 2 primary.

"There are struggling school systems. There are struggling schools. But even within some struggling school systems, you'll find schools that are excellent. The Beverly Hills school system is one of the best in America."

Julie Korenstein, president of the board of the Los Angeles Unified School District, said of Checchi: "He's from another world. Obviously he doesn't choose to or understand the needs of the majority of children that attend our schools."

Korenstein has endorsed Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, one of Checchi's opponents.

Generally, politicians in Checchi's position tiptoe around such an issue, explaining that their decision is a family matter while vowing to improve the public schools. Clinton was forced into such a position when he chose to send his daughter, Chelsea, to the private Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C.

Checchi also tried to finesse the issue. But the force of his comments to the San Francisco Chronicle's editorial board appeared to detonate a mine or two.

The candidate told the newspaper that he would not "sacrifice my children's future" by sending them to public school. He was also quoted as saying he would not even consider it: "Of course not, why would I do that?"

Checchi's daughters, Kate, 13, and Kristin, 17, attend a private school in the Los Angeles area.

State Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, the official responsible for running the 5.6-million-student system Checchi criticized, declined to rebuke him. Eastin, a Democrat, has appeared in a Checchi television advertisement but has not made a formal endorsement.

She said Checchi's comments may have been "hasty," but praised him for pledging to raise California's per-pupil school spending to the national average within five years. The state now ranks 37th in the nation. "What I know about him is, he's committed to fixing public education," Eastin said.

Neither Davis nor Rep. Jane Harman, the other major Democratic candidate in the race, has made such a pledge. But their campaign representatives dismissed Eastin as biased and said neither she nor Checchi has explained how to raise the money to honor his pledge.

Davis is childless. Two of Harman's children attend private schools in the Washington, D.C., area. But Harman said she would put them in public school when the family moves back to California, according to her campaign manager, Kam Kuwata.

Presumptive GOP nominee Dan Lungren sent all three of his children to private schools.

Kuwata said Checchi's refusal to consider public schools showed that he is out of touch with Californians. "When you're running for governor, you have some sensitivity about this," Kuwata said. "It touches a nerve for a lot of people who have no option."

The principal of Beverly Hills High School, Ben Bushman, invited Checchi to come to the campus for a look around. He said the school offers many honors courses and student activities. Students routinely score higher than national and state averages by all standardized measures.

"I am really opposed to what he said," Bushman said. "The bottom line is that Beverly Hills High has everything to offer that a student would need. It's one of the finest high schools in the state, without question."

But Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa defended Checchi. The speaker, a Los Angeles Democrat who has endorsed Checchi, is married to a public school teacher and has a son in a public elementary school in Mt. Washington.

"I think that the decision about what school to send your child to is a personal decision, and not a public one," Villaraigosa said. "My son goes to public school and my daughters did as well. But I don't think you can tell somebody they should not put their children in the school they believe is best for them."

Times staff writer Jenifer Warren contributed to this story.

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