California Capitol Building and Delaine Eastin

Alumni Newsletter

Gevirtz + Delaine Eastin, Former CA State Superintendent of Public Instruction

Since the position was created in 1851, there have been 27 State Superintendents of Public Instruction in California. One of the 27 has been a woman. That’s Delaine Eastin, who earned her undergraduate degree at UC Davis and a Master’s of Political Science at UC Santa Barbara but has had an obvious affinity for education her entire life of public service.

Eastin, who won a UCSB Distinguished Alumni Award in 1997, recently talked to the Gevirtz School about her career and the state of education in California today, 12 years after she left office. “I think there can be a new Golden Age for education,” she says, “but there has to be an interest.” She’s not sure we do have that will, however, citing the stat that California is at 71% of the national average in per pupil spending. “People say ‘Money isn’t the solution,’ but we don’t say that about the military or transportation. It’s necessary, but not sufficient.”

Then again, California’s unique funding situation led quite directly to Eastin leaving a budding career in academia for government. "Of all the graduate students that I ever taught at UCSB or elsewhere for 34 years I do not believe there is Delaine's match for poise and intellectual acumen,” her UCSB mentor Alan P. Liu, now Emeritus Professor of Political Science, asserts. “I had always believed that she would become an outstanding figure in some public affairs someday. Witnessing her debates with her classmates in my seminar (either in Chinese Politics or Personality and Politics), I thought to myself that whoever took her on better watch his steps for she is a formidable thinker and debater.”

After earning her graduate degree at UCSB, she held teaching appointments at both De Anza College and Cañada College, “driving a thousand miles a week and having no benefits,” when she was about to be appointed to a full-time position. “The night before my position went before the board, Prop 13 was approved, so they froze all new hires,” she relates. Needing a steady job, she went to work for Pacific Telesis, became their contact member for a congressperson, and soon was elected to the Union City Council.

To fast forward a bit, in 1986 she was elected to the California legislature along with six other women – up to that year, only 32 women had served in the CA legislature since they had won suffrage in 1911. It took her some time, and numerous accomplishments such as helping to bring recycling programs to the state and to ban harmful “white goods” (large appliance) dumping, before she was appointed to the Education Committee. “It was the main reason I ran, the core of who I am,” she says. “My life was shaped by my education and it was what I wanted to work on in Sacramento.”

Perhaps the highlight of her four terms in the State Assembly was placing the largest school bond in history on the ballot, and helping lead the campaign to get it approved in a climate where the previous two such measures failed. “It was the first time a bond had combined higher education and K-12,” she says. “That turned out to be wise as higher ed had more money and K-12 has more troops, and that turned the election.”

Even though securing more funding for education has always been a priority for Eastin, and while Superintendent she moved California from 43rd in the nation to 27th (and now she laments we’re back to 46th), she also figured out ways to make big changes with little funding. In 1995 she called for a Garden in Every School, and she recalls “some made merciless fun of me.” This is years before being a foodie was cool and developing a sense of STEM education through gardening and cooking was accepted practice. Although she received no money from Governors Wilson or Davis, she instead partnered with the likes of Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Foundation, the Future Farmers of America, the 4H, Women and Wine in Napa, and even UC Davis, which did research to prove children learn more about science when actively gardening. Over 3000 gardens were planted. “My parents loved food and passed that appreciation on to me,” she says. “And I know I understood perimeter much better after gardening.”

And no one knew California school’s better than Eastin after her Superintendent tenure as she visited at least a school a week, and one in each of the state’s 58 counties, during her eight years in the office. Those site visits led her to uncover a pressing issue. “I’d be at a school and there would be computer boxes in the halls, so I’d ask, ‘Why aren’t these in classrooms?’” she recalls. “I’d be told that school isn’t wired for enough electricity.”

Such incidents led her to develop Net Day, what she calls an “electronic barn raising,” that had 30,000 volunteers work state-wide to improve classroom technology capabilities. The program, since copied by 40 states and 40 countries, also featured a visit by then President Clinton and Vice President Gore. “Afterward Al Gore told me that he realized if California, home to Silicon Valley, wasn’t wired, he wondered what it might be like in Alabama or Maine,” Eastin relates, “so that led him to develop the E-rate” that supports technology in schools and libraries throughout the U.S.

Even running through these successes in Eastin’s career means we haven’t talked about her work for classroom size reduction, a push for standards, a move towards universal preschool. Nor does it leave room to discuss her concerns for higher education, especially its cost. “”I paid $82.50 a semester at Davis, and that included health insurance,” she says. “Now it’s tens of thousands of dollars more. They used to say if you go to college you will make more money and then pay more taxes, and that’s how we get the money back. But right now it’s sad to think how many students think they can’t afford college, or that people go to school and think they can’t afford to go into certain occupations as they won’t make enough money to pay back their loans.”

For instance, this generation’s young Delaine Eastins might never choose to study political science, and then go into public service, and what a loss that would be. For education isn’t just about knowledge learned. As Eastin puts it, “UCSB is the place I found my voice, developed a confidence that there is a way that I could think and act that could make a difference.”