Eastin defends nutrition boondoggle

March 26, 2010


The current issue of The Atlantic features a letter from Delaine Eastin, former California Superintendent of Public Instruction. Her letter does not include any episodes from her tenure in that post, every bit as interesting as her current tangle.

Eastin, also a former member of the California Assembly, praises the Center for Nutrition in Schools at the University of California at Davis. She also champions the California School Garden Network with its garden-based curriculum.” In a recent issue of the The Atlantic, California author Caitlin Flanagan found no evidence that a garden-based curriculum improves students chances of doing well on state tests. Such a curriculum, Flanagan wrote, was part of “a vacuous if well-meaning ideology that is responsible for robbing an increasing number of American school children of hours they might otherwise have spent reading important books or learning higher math. . .” 

“I was offended by her ridicule of me and the gardens’ many supporters,” Eastin says in her letter. It was not the first time the she has drawn criticism.

On her watch as state superintendent during the 1990s, the California Department of Education (CDE) was giving out millions in funds for English instruction to politically connected groups not entitled to receive it. CDE auditor James Lindberg brought this massive fraud, involving about $20 million, to the attention of Eastin. Instead of dealing with the fraud, Superintendent Eastin retaliated against Mr. Lindberg and kept the money flowing. The same thing happened to CDE whistleblower Robert Cervantes, who received threats from left-wing militant Bert Corona of Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, the group that got most of the money.

A state auditor’s report backed up the whistleblowers and the CDE repaid the federal government more than $3 million, an acknowledgment that the department improperly disbursed funds. In 2002, a jury awarded Mr. Lindberg $4.5 million and held Delaine Eastin personally liable for nearly $1.4 million in non-economic damages and $150,000 in punitive damages because she had “acted with malice” toward him. The award was reduced to $4 million and Eastin’s punitive damages dropped. The CDE, under current superintendent Jack O’Connell, could have ended it there but chose to appeal. That was a decision the department would come to regret.

A Sacramento jury not only agreed with Mr. Lindberg but boosted his award to $7.6 million, an increase of more than $3 million. Eastin told reporters that Lindberg no more deserved this award than “the man in the moon.” The courts thought otherwise and the CDE appealed yet again, spending $1.2 million in legal fees to defend the department and Eastin, who no longer worked there.

While the case played out, the Associated Press discovered that the CDE had set aside some $3.7 million to defend itself. The department had also transferred more than $750,000 from adult education and special education programs for deaf and blind children to cover their legal costs. The CDE blamed this on a “clerical error.”

Dan Walters of the Sacramento Bee tackled the story in a column headlined, “Sorry Tale of Millions Squandered.”

“So there we have it,” Walters wrote. “Taxpayers’ money was ripped off, and politicians were at least compliant, if not complicit. Those who tried to set things right were punished and the taxpayers were tapped again to compensate them. Finally, taxpayers’ money meant to educate children is, instead, being spent to fight a whistle-blower. What’s wrong with this picture? Everything.”

Delaine Eastin is not the only superintendent to encounter legal difficulties in office. In 1993, Eastin’s predecessor Bill Honig was convicted on felony conflict-of-interest charges.

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