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2 Vie for Bully Pulpit as State Superintendent of Schools

Katherine Smith and Jack O'Connell compete for a post that could be marginalized under a reorganization plan afoot in Sacramento.

October 31, 2002|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

If there is anything Katherine H. Smith and Jack O'Connell agree on, it's the job they both want: California superintendent of public instruction.

Smith is a Republican school board president from Anaheim, a self-styled Sacramento outsider who talks about the need to restore civility to schools.

O'Connell is a Democratic state senator from San Luis Obispo who wants to expand popular class-size reforms into higher grades. A law he wrote six years ago puts a limit of 20 students per class in kindergarten through third grade.

The two are vying to replace Supt. Delaine Eastin, who must leave office because of term limits.

The superintendent oversees the 1,600-member Department of Education but has little real authority to define policies, which are set by the State Board of Education.

In addition, the superintendent vies for visibility with the secretary for education, who is appointed by and represents the governor on education matters.

The existence of the two positions and the state board confuses many educators, who say they receive guidance from all of them.

The elected position could be marginalized by a new proposal in Sacramento to place many of the superintendent's responsibilities -- and most of the staff -- directly under the governor's secretary for education.

Still, the two candidates say they want the job because it provides a bully pulpit to advocate for the state's 6 million public school students.

"I'm passionate about improving public education," said O'Connell, 51, who is being forced from his current Senate seat, also by term limits.

O'Connell wrote laws to create the state's new high school exit exam and raise salaries for beginning teachers. He also spearheaded a successful effort two years ago to reduce the vote threshold for local school bonds from 66% to 55%. That state initiative has enabled many school districts to raise money for new campuses.

The 20-year veteran of the Legislature has raised $6 million and enjoys wide backing from many of the state's unions. The California Teachers Assn. and the California Federation of Teachers -- the state's two teachers unions -- together have given O'Connell more than $370,000.

O'Connell also has received large donations from prominent individuals, including $100,000 from philanthropist Eli Broad and $250,000 from Reed Hastings, president of the State Board of Education.

As superintendent, O'Connell says, he would focus attention on struggling schools that are at risk of state takeover. "I think I'm really primed for this position," he said.

Smith, president of the Anaheim Union High School District, says she would lobby to expand vocational education and will call on teachers to further embrace the basics in the elementary grades, such as phonics, grammar and rote math instruction.

She talks about her successful effort to introduce a moment of silence each morning into Anaheim's secondary schools -- not meant for prayer but to give students time to collect their thoughts -- and to help bring uniforms to the junior high schools of Anaheim.

Smith has raised $138,000 for her campaign so far. She and her husband, Clarke, loaned her campaign $60,000. The rest has come in smaller contributions from numerous friends and supporters.

"Jack O'Connell is a politician. I am not," said Smith, 61. "I am a citizen who is committed to change. If I can leave this [job] better than when I found it, then it will have been worth it to me."

In recent weeks, the candidates have accused each other of misrepresenting their own qualifications.

Earlier this month, Smith said O'Connell misled voters by adding "teacher" to his ballot designation even though he had not taught full-time in two decades.

"Jack has not been in the trenches for 20 years. He's been in the halls of Sacramento talking to legislators," Smith said. "They're all out of touch with what we're dealing with in our school systems."

O'Connell, who has a teaching credential, taught high school full-time in Oxnard from 1975 to 1980. He most recently taught an adult education class last summer in Sacramento, he says, to reconnect to the classroom.

O'Connell said he added "teacher" to his ballot designation to more accurately reflect his background.

Meanwhile, O'Connell has questioned Smith's public claim of being a teacher, although she identifies herself on the ballot only as a governing board member of the Anaheim district.

But in interviews and in her campaign biography, Smith says she worked in 1964 as a private school teacher in Anaheim and as an elementary school substitute teacher in Anaheim in the 1970s.

Smith does not have a teaching credential and acknowledges she never received her bachelor's degree at Cal State Hayward.

"When it comes down to it, we're all teachers," she said.

Experts say the candidates' backgrounds may be less important than their abilities to build bridges in Sacramento. The state superintendent must work closely with the State Board of Education, the Legislature, the secretary for education and the governor.

Eastin, the current superintendent, has had a frosty relationship with Gov. Gray Davis, and the governor, declaring education his top priority, has often overshadowed her in public debate and in the media.

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