Friday, August 14, 2020
Aug. 14, 2020

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School-closure culture clash, sex-ed repeal part of Washington state schools chief race

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Three of the five challengers running against incumbent Chris Reykdal in the race to become Washington state’s next schools chief questioned the decision to shut school down last spring because of the coronavirus — though it was Gov. Jay Inslee, not Reykdal, who ordered the closure.

The candidates’ platforms mirror the culture wars raging in public education here and nationwide as a school year unlike any other is about to begin.

Two of the candidates, Maia Espinoza and Ron Higgins, want to see the repeal of the recent mandatory sex-education law that Reykdal supported. Four out of five of the challengers support the idea of charter schools, while Reykdal is a critic of them.

Reykdal’s opponents, most of whom voiced the need for less state intervention in education, face a steep challenge. Though some have experience in the education arena as school board directors and teachers, three have raised no money and none has held statewide office.

As a former Democratic state legislator and former Tumwater School Board member, Reykdal has strong ties at the Capitol. He already has the race’s most powerful endorsement: the Washington Education Association, the statewide teachers union.

Whoever advances in the Aug. 4 primary and Nov. 3 general election will oversee the financial, legal and academic welfare of 300 school districts as they navigate a tumultuous and changing landscape for public education, and will earn an annual salary of about $140,000.

They will guide district superintendents through a time when the state faces a recession with no clear end in sight, and grapple with how to fix widening inequities in education access caused by the closure of school buildings, a problem that threatens to worsen the state’s lagging outcomes for students with disabilities.

They will also help make policy recommendations to the Legislature, and oversee a staff of more than 400 at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), which distributes funding to school districts as well as grants intended to improve schools, such as programs that aim to recruit more educators of color.

Some experts say the disruption of the traditional public school model caused by coronavirus presents a unique opportunity to discard long-standing racism embedded in schools and start anew. Most of the candidates, including the incumbent, are white men. None of the candidates’ voters pamphlet statements addresses racism or race explicitly.

“It’s gonna take really strong state leadership to support school leadership to see school systems through,” said Meredith Honig, an education policy professor at the University of Washington College of Education.

With less power than the governor but more geographic influence than a school district superintendent, the state schools chief has to do a delicate dance. OSPI is supposed to help guide districts to success, but also step in when they’ve failed or broken the law, withholding funding if necessary.

“What’s really important for states not to do is provide a lot of mandates at a level of governance that should be left to superintendents,” said Honig. At their best, schools chiefs lead by example, giving incentives for improvement and helping districts learn from each other, she said. That job could be “pivotal” to help schools develop anti-racist practices now, when more districts like Seattle are embracing parts of the Black Lives Matter movement, she said.

Reykdal, who sought to bet more diplomatic than his predecessor, Randy Dorn, has faced criticism for being slow to provide guidance to districts in consequential moments, including from the statewide school administrators’ association during the chaotic summer of 2018, when thousands of teachers across the state went on strike. In 2016, former state attorney general and Republican Rob McKenna endorsed Reykdal’s opponent, Erin Jones, questioning Reykdal’s relationship with teachers unions, which have given his campaigns financial support.

If elected, Reykdal said his priorities would include expanding internet access to students across the state who are struggling to learn remotely, pushing for a different model for reading instruction and advocating for more mental health support in school. When asked about his successes, he pointed to his advocacy for new or modified laws, including the state school-funding overhaul (“the McCleary fix”), changes to rules around school discipline, and new graduation requirements that de-emphasize standardized testing. (Since the McCleary funding overhaul in 2017, Reykdal has argued for relaxing a key feature of the deal that sets limits on local levy collection.)

In light of the current civil rights movement, he said he “strongly supports” the removal of armed officers from schools, and said he is asking his staff at OSPI to “go into their processes” and report back on how they can embed anti-racism in their work.

In an interview, he said he was concerned about the rhetoric of some of his opponents.

“There are candidates who torch everything and sell salvation,” he said last week, addressing the field of challengers in general. “I’m troubled by the politics of rage.”

Last month, Reykdal sued Espinoza for the language she had submitted for her voters pamphlet statement to describe the comprehensive sex education bill Reykdal championed last year, which his attorney called defamatory. A Thurston County judge ruled in his favor, ordering the language removed from the pamphlet, and Espinoza filed an appeal.

Espinoza, of Lakewood, Pierce County, is the only woman of color in the race, and the second most well-financed. She has raised $41,000 and spent $33,000 — about half of Reykdal’s roughly $80,000, of which he had spent just under $12,000. She heads the nonprofit Center for Latino Leadership, and says she has advocated for funding on behalf of migrant students. She said she is not against sex education but against requiring districts to adopt it.

If elected, she said, she wants to touch base more regularly with superintendents. To support students of color, she said she would advocate for the expansion of charter schools and school voucher programs, which reimburse families who send their kids to private schools.

Most of Reykdal’s challengers mentioned only a few policy ideas or initiatives, instead deferring to the concept of “local control,” the status quo of school governance in Washington state which leaves most educational decisions to locally elected school boards unless they have directives from the state or the U.S. Department of Education. Reykdal, too, has said respecting local control is an important part of his job.

Dennis Wick, a former Snohomish School Board member, said he would explore the concept of microschools, a very small and personalized multi-age classroom model that some are now looking to as an alternative to remote learning. He says this model could help make schools more welcoming environments for students of color.

He said he wanted to make the state superintendent a more visible role, and prioritize initiatives that strengthen the relationship between students and teachers. His first priority would be guiding districts through the pandemic. Of the challengers, he appeared to be the most aligned ideologically with Reykdal, praising the McCleary funding overhaul.

Stan Lippmann is a former physicist and attorney who has run for statewide office many times. He was disbarred in 2008 for financial misconduct. In response to specific questions about his candidacy, he wrote things such as, “As a group, teachers are low IQ and useless in the real world,” and “You can’t trust women since 1973.”

Higgins, a substitute teacher from Richland, says he is running on a conservative platform, “vigorously” opposing comprehensive sex education. He wants more traditional values brought back to schools, he said. When asked how he would address racial disparities in education, he referenced the 14th Amendment, and said that he wouldn’t play favorites.

David Spring, a former instructor at Bellevue College, is running a campaign centered largely on his opposition to closing down schools and to standardized testing. In the voters pamphlet, he says the closures should have been left to local school boards. He also inaccurately claims that scientific research has shown adults are not at risk from kids transmitting the virus. The research on this so far shows a lower risk among younger age groups, not no risk.

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