Principles may cost state board member his seat
San Francisco Chronicle
Jan. 5, 2005

Senators angry at his backing school bonds, teaching only in English

Nanette Asimov, Chronicle Staff Writer

In an unexpected political twist, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Reed Hastings appears likely to lose his seat on the state Board of Education for supporting two issues dear to voters' hearts: English-language instruction for immigrant students and making it easier to pass school construction bonds.

Both issues won big at the ballot box, but Hastings, known to DVD aficionados as the founder of Netflix, is finding that taking a strong position on issues can be poison in the state Capitol.

Today's confirmation hearing by the state Senate Rules Committee on Hastings and five other members of the Board of Education was postponed until next Wednesday, apparently the result of the controversy over Hastings.

"He's a man who has put his money with his principles," said Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, an Oakland Democrat, referring to Hastings' vocal and financial backing of education causes he supports. "He's done education a great service in California. There just seems to be a confluence of factors that don't have anything to do with Reed Hastings or his qualifications that make his confirmation highly unlikely at this time."

Boiled down, Perata's comments mean Hastings' views have annoyed enough senators on both sides of the aisle to keep him from getting the 27 confirmation votes he needs from the 40 senators -- assuming he gets past the Rules Committee.

Sen. Martha Escutia, a Whittier Democrat who came within one vote last year of being elected Senate president pro tem, is leading the fight against Hastings' confirmation.

Hastings said he was shocked by this week's turn of events.

"I've been hopeful that this would be just a misunderstanding," Hastings said. "As a long-term Democrat, it's just kind of ironic to be shot down by the Democrats."

On the left, Democratic opponents such as Escutia are passionate about bilingual education. On the right, there are anti-tax Republicans. In the middle are lawmakers such as Perata, who question whether it's a fight worth fighting.

Bilingual education is the sore point for some Latino members of the Legislature. Though voters gave overwhelming support in 1998 for Proposition 227, which required classroom instruction in English, there remains opposition in some corners of the Legislature.

"I believe very strongly in defending my constituents," said Escutia, whose Southern California district has a large population of Latinos.

About 8 percent of California's English learners are taught in their native language because Proposition 227 allows waivers. Escutia said she and Latino lobbyists had been battling Hastings ever since he persuaded the Board of Education to withhold federal reading funds from those waivered classrooms that did not agree to teach in English 2 1/2 hours a day.

Escutia and others remain committed to their belief that students should be taught in their native language.

"I want the kids to learn English," she said. "But I know what it feels like to feel locked out in class because you don't know what the teacher is saying."

After the board approved Hastings' motion requiring English instruction, the Legislature overrode the policy by passing AB1485 in 2003.

Hastings has also alienated some Republican lawmakers by helping lead the successful campaign in November 2000 for Proposition 39, which lowered school bond approval from 66.7 percent to 55 percent.

"We got that passed, and it has generated an additional $8 billion for schools," Hastings said.

But the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers' Association blames Hastings and other "high-tech millionaires and billionaires," saying "Prop. 39 has cost homeowners billions of dollars."

Then-Gov. Gray Davis appointed Hastings to the state board in 1999. He had been CEO of TechNet, a group of high-tech executives involved in public schools, and a strong advocate of charter schools and accountability.

State schools chief Jack O'Connell is lobbying senators to confirm his friend Hastings.

"He's been a tremendous asset to the state board,'' O'Connell said. "There are 6.2 million students who benefit from his great work."

E-mail Nanette Asimov at