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O.C. Teacher Has a Final: State Schools Chief Runoff

June 04, 1998|NANCY WRIDE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hours after she officially earned the chance to compete for California's top education job, Gloria Matta Tuchman was back in her first-grade classroom Wednesday morning, doing what she has done for 33 years.

There was talk of dinosaurs--how do they have babies?--and of prehistoric eggs. There was no talk about bilingual anything. In fact, her students were blissfully unaware of the campaign, or that Matta Tuchman had just had breakfast with the governor and 500 other Republicans.

"I keep my politics out of the classroom," said a beaming Matta Tuchman, sitting beneath maps of the world in the library of Taft Elementary School in Santa Ana, contemplating what comes next in her race for state superintendent of public instruction. "That's my other life."

With three hours' sleep, the teacher could celebrate a double victory: as a lesser-known candidate, she earned enough votes in the primary election to force a runoff against the incumbent schools czar, Delaine Eastin. And as co-author of Proposition 227, Matta Tuchman was the Latina poster teacher for ending bilingual education in public schools, and replacing it with a one-year English immersion program.

Statewide, incumbent Democrat Eastin earned 42.9% of the vote, with Matta Tuchman, one of four Republicans, claiming 25.6% of the vote. In Orange County, which supported the anti-bilingual education initiative in greater numbers than California at large, Eastin barely beat Matta Tuchman, 33.4% to 32.6%. Had Eastin earned a majority statewide, there would be no November runoff.

"Gloria had a great line this morning" at the breakfast, said her campaign manager Jon Fleischman. "She said 'Delaine Eastin couldn't muster 50% in the election yesterday. In my classroom, earning under 50% is a failing grade.' "

Teased later about her analogy, and that such logic would mean Proposition 227--which passed with 61% of the vote--also would receive a lousy mark in her class, Matta Tuchman smiled and explained, in so many words, that political math is different than the arithmetic she teaches in the classroom.

Matta Tuchman was understandably tired from dual campaigns as she finished her school day Wednesday, though she did not look it, sharply dressed in a pearl-colored suit. She had gone to bed at 2:30 a.m., staying at the Santa Ana hotel where the Republicans were headquartered. She had awakened at 5:30 a.m. for the big unity meal with party leaders.

"I didn't ask about breakfast, or 'What's next?' I asked my campaign manager, 'Am I still a winner?' " Matta Tuchman said with a grin. "'Did the proposition [227] still win?' Because you go to bed not knowing if it could change."

Now, of course, comes the heavy lifting: five months of campaigning before the November general election and--perhaps more grueling--the fund-raising.

Where will the support and money come from? Will Matta Tuchman ride the coattails of Proposition 227's victory? And what issues will she beat the drum for besides the one that she has championed--students learning English through immersion.

Matta Tuchman said she will meet today and Friday with her campaign team to start drawing up plans, but that she has faith in her ability to win in November.

Matta Tuchman said her top priorities as state superintendent of public instruction would be to concentrate on the back-to-basics approach that she believes could be accomplished by implementing existing state board of education policies. She also wants to ensure that there are "worthwhile" textbooks for every student, and that Proposition 227 is carried out, if it clears challenges raised in a lawsuit filed Wednesday.

"The money--I'm not going to worry about it. The money will come. . . . I know it takes a lot of money on a campaign, but we did a lot with what we had," she said.

The deep pockets of Silicon Valley multimillionaire Ron K. Unz, Proposition 227's co-author, helped her in the primary, and the national spotlight cast upon the initiative probably "didn't hurt," she said.

Although the office is bipartisan, there was no escaping politics in the primary: Eastin is a former Democratic Assembly member. She attended her own party's post-election breakfast Wednesday. Matta Tuchman has received several education commission appointments from former President Reagan and Gov. Pete Wilson.

Ron Smith, a GOP consultant, said he believes Matta Tuchman benefited from her association with Proposition 227 and that it will help her campaign in the fall. Smith pointed out that Paul Gann, who co-sponsored Proposition 13 that resulted from a voter revolt on property taxes in 1978, was soundly beaten when he ran for Senate four years later. But Matta Tuchman's "is a special case," he said. "I think there is a feeling that schools are failing our students and she may be just the person to express the frustration--someone who is 33 years as a teacher."

Political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe agreed.

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