SPOKANE — Randy Dorn is stepping down after eight years as state superintendent of public instruction, and two Democrats are vying to replace him as head of Washington’s K-12 public education system.
The nonpartisan job pays $132,000 a year and oversees some $9 billion in education spending.
State Rep. Chris Reykdal, 44, of Tumwater, has served three terms in the state House and is an administrator for the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. He believes pressure must remain on the Legislature to better fund schools.
His opponent, 45-year-old Erin Jones of Tacoma, sees the job more as setting out a vision for education. Jones is the first African-American woman to run for statewide office in Washington. She works for the Tacoma School District as a teaching coach and program administrator, and this is her first time seeking public office.
“We’ve got to have a much clearer vision for public education,” Jones said. “We need to be more visible as an agency outside the halls of Olympia.”
Reykdal, if elected, would be the first superintendent in recent history with children in public school. He also has worked as a high school history teacher.
“I bring expertise in budget and policy to an agency that is good but needs to be great,” Reykdal said. “I have endorsements from both sides of the aisle and both parts of the state.”
A former lawmaker, Dorn was hard to miss in Olympia and made sure his views were heard by lawmakers and the Washington Supreme Court, which decided in 2012 that the way the state paid for public schools was unconstitutional. That case is called the McCleary decision, and it looms over the Legislature.
Dorn pushed hard for more money for education, which made him at odds with many lawmakers.
Among those praising Dorn is Reykdal, who says the superintendent kept lawmakers on their toes as they debated school finance. Reykdal said he will maintain an active role in the discussion about the McCleary decision.
“There is an enormous need to fully fund our system and do that more equitably,” Reykdal said.
Jones says she wants to be a resource for the Legislature while working to educate Washington residents and encourage them to push lawmakers to increase education funding.
“We do need additional revenues,” Jones said. “We need more teachers and new buildings.”
Jones said she has a unique perspective on the state’s education system because her children have experienced the inequity that the school funding lawsuit sought to fix. They were students at a high-poverty school in Tacoma and then at another Title I school that was dramatically overcrowded in Puyallup.
Reykdal also would bring a parent’s perspective to the job. But while Jones’ kids are now adults, Reykdal’s children were still in elementary school last school year.
Both candidates would like to pull back on the state’s commitment to student testing and not use the high school exams as a graduation requirement. But they do not want to eliminate testing altogether.
They want to increase the starting salaries for teachers and work to make the teacher pay system more competitive statewide. And they think the estimated $3.5 billion to finish the work outlined in the McCleary decision is just a first step toward a more equitable school system.
Reykdal thinks the superintendent needs to be an education leader, informing policymakers. He said the superintendent’s office should be used more as the research shop it is and actively provide the data lawmakers and school districts need.
Reykdal said he is better qualified than Jones for the job of running an agency with 400 employees that deals with billions of dollars in funds.
“My opponent is fantastic, but she has a bachelor’s degree in literature,” he said. “We really need a strong CEO.”
Jones, who was raised in the Netherlands, said a main attribute for the job is a broad vision for education that includes funding, testing and closing the opportunity gap.
“The vision piece is huge,” she said.
It is unrealistic to think the state will meet its obligation to fully fund education in the coming legislative session, Jones said.
“We need additional revenue somewhere,” she said, adding it must come from multiple places.
She also said her lack of political background is a positive.
“This is the only thing I have done,” she said of education. “And I have done a great job.”