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News / Politics / Election

Pandemic still at forefront of WA state schools superintendent race

By Dahlia Bazzaz, The Seattle Times
Published: May 5, 2024, 6:02am

The last time Washingtonians elected a state schools leader was in 2020, when most school buildings were empty because of the pandemic.

Running an all-online campaign, incumbent Chris Reykdal handily won reelection to a second term in the state’s highest education office.

The pandemic was an important factor in that race, but much less was known about how, and when, kids would return to something close to normalcy again.

This time, there’s no ambiguity. Reykdal is running for a third term, and both of his opponents cite concerns about the issues laid bare by the pandemic: the large share of students struggling academically, and their mental health. At the same time, federal aid aimed at buoying schools through the pandemic is set to expire in a few months. And dozens of districts say they’re in a financial crisis because of falling enrollment and inflation.

“The effects of the pandemic have now really hit home,” said Arik Korman, CEO of the Washington League of Education Voters, a nonpartisan advocacy organization that does not make endorsements. “We need to find resources to be able to give students what they need and where they need it.”

Reykdal, a former state lawmaker, says the state’s school system has made a “great recovery” under his leadership, but that there is more work to do, particularly on funding.

Reid Saaris, who has raised the most money in the race so far, touts his classroom experience and founding of a nonprofit that advises school districts on equity issues. David Olson credits his years on the Peninsula School District’s board of directors as having shown him the type of funding, curricula and infrastructural investments that schools deserve.

The state superintendent earns around $150,000 a year, and is in charge of leading the state education department. That agency, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, distributes state and federal funding to school districts. OSPI also has the power to withhold that money or issue sanctions in cases where school districts have not followed the law.

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The position is mostly a bully pulpit. State superintendents here cannot pass laws, only enforce them. They also advise lawmakers and school districts.

Though all three men running for office have a political leaning, their differences are more in the details than in the issues they value. In interviews, they spoke about the need to increase education funding and address longstanding gaps in outcomes between low-income students and their wealthier peers.

Reykdal, who served as a Democrat in the state Legislature before becoming state superintendent, credits his office with implementing several policy initiatives, including increasing the number of high school students earning college credit (also known as dual credit), expanding free breakfast and lunch and offering more opportunities for students to participate in career and technical education programs.

“I’ll strongly defend what we did with some limited resources during the pandemic,” said Reykdal. “Experience matters … When you try to start over [with a different person] and you try to learn all that fresh, it’s a setback.”

If elected to another term, Reykdal said he’d continue to advocate for increased funding to school districts, especially now that inflation has spiked costs dramatically.

Also on his priority list: early academic screening for 4-year-olds, dual language expansion and improving academic standards, especially with respect to misinformation. On his campaign website and in interviews, he also presents himself as a defender against education initiatives such as voucher programs, which tend to be supported by conservatives.

Reykdal has raised a little over $100,000 in campaign contributions and spent around $35,000.

Saaris and Reykdal, both progressives, share some of the same priorities. But Saaris — who has raised about $200,000 so far and spent $90,000 — believes he would be more effective in moving these issues forward, particularly around academic recovery and mental health.

Raised in Bellevue, Saaris taught high school on the East Coast for several years and then branched into the education advocacy space. He’s also published a book about education and, last summer, authored a report for the nonprofit Children’s Alliance that touches on solutions to expand the availability of mental health care to students.

“We’re not sharing the practices of what’s working to solve these things across city lines, across district lines,” said Saaris, who founded the nonprofit Equal Opportunity Schools, an organization that works with school districts on issues of education equity. “We’re just not doing that in our state in a way that I think we can and should.”

Saaris thinks the state missed opportunities to rally school districts around evidence-based practices like high-dosage tutoring, an intervention strategy that researchers say has helped students who fell behind academically during the pandemic. He also takes issue with the way OSPI framed the results of the state’s Healthy Youth Survey, which includes questions about student mental health.

“I believe it was nearly 15% of adolescents reported considering suicide in the last year,” said Saaris. “But again, OSPI is saying we’re making great progress, that this is really good. It’s a theme that things are great, things are fine.” (The results are for a sample of 10th graders around the state. Results for the previous year, 2022, were around 19%.)

Saaris said he’d place a stronger emphasis on tools like universal screening and expanding access to mental health care overall. His other ideas include investing more in policies that would limit cellphones in classrooms, and a statewide platform that helps students make decisions about what they’d like to pursue after high school, similar to a model used in Massachusetts.

Peninsula School Board member Olson would also prioritize the elimination of cellphones in schools. His own district instituted a ban recently, and says it’s benefited the mental health of students.

Olson, a Navy veteran and former commercial banker, says it was a difficult decision to run for this office. But seeing the state’s handling of the pandemic and lagging academic results made him realize the urgency, he said. His campaign earned the state’s Republican Party endorsement, but he stressed conservative politics aren’t a focus of his campaign.

“Half our kids can’t read and write at grade level,” said Olson, who accuses the incumbent of failing Washington’s children. “I want to make sure that I’m supporting and giving every kid in the state every opportunity and resource they need to be successful.”

Two things got him interested in education policymaking, Olson says: crumbling school district infrastructure, and too little emphasis on the skilled trades in high school. That prompted his run for the School Board, where he got to watch the state’s handling of the pandemic and the downstream effects for the Peninsula School District. He pushed for his school district to quickly reopen after the state lifted its school shutdown order.

He feels the state too often infringes on school districts’ autonomy, including when it required masks in all official settings. If elected, he said, he’d be a more collaborative partner with districts and be careful not to supersede what local communities want for their schools.

The state needs to continue fighting for more funding for students with disabilities, and find a way to incentivize experienced teachers to teach in academically struggling schools, he said. He’d also advocate for paraeducator pay to increase by $7 an hour.

So far, Olson has raised $34,000 in campaign contributions and spent around $7,000.

More candidates could emerge. The last day to file candidacy with the state is May 10. The primary, which will whittle the race down to the two top vote-getters, is Aug. 6.