Erin Jones and Chris Reykdal, the two candidates for superintendent of public instruction, can agree on one thing: Addressing all of the issues facing Washington state schools is a daunting task that will take more than one four-year term.
"These things take a lot of time. It's intimidating to think of how much I would love to do to transform the system for kids and parents and make it stronger, and knowing there are only so many breaths in a day," Reykdal says, when asked by the League of Education Voters what frightens him most about the job.
Jones, in response to the same question, says that "not being able to fix everything" frightens her most. "The thing that scares me — but it's also an opportunity — is, how can I — with a number of voices and leaders — really craft a plan to focus on three or four things as a state."
Those may just be strategic answers from both candidates. But there's no debating that the next state superintendent, succeeding Randy Dorn, will face an array of challenges, including how to push state lawmakers to fund education, provide more equity between rural and urban districts, close achievement gaps among students, reduce the emphasis on state tests, and advocate for LGBTQ students.
Both candidates tell the Inlander that they share similar goals on those issues, but in many cases have expressed differences in how to meet them. Reykdal, a state legislator and vice-chair of the House Education Committee, says he will take a more data-driven approach to the job, and says he's the only one with the experience to manage a multimillion-dollar agency like the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Reykdal would be the first superintendent to have kids in public school while in office.
Jones would be the first black woman to hold a statewide office in Washington. As a former assistant state superintendent under Randy Dorn and a Milken Educator of the Year as a Rogers High School teacher in 2007, Jones says she will use her experience to create a vision that works in classrooms across the state, saying, "As the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, my skill is public instruction."
Jones says schools need to do a better job of meeting the "cultural needs of students." She says it's important that when students walk in, they feel comfortable; otherwise they'll disengage. She says that starts with making sure the demographics of staff matches that of students.
"Adults need to know the community they're serving in," Jones says.
Yet when it comes to gay or transgender students, Jones has wavered.
In August, Equal Rights Washington, the state's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer advocacy organization, announced that it could not support Jones. That's because when a conservative blog asked her about "teaching transgenderism," Jones responded that she did not think it was appropriate to talk about gender or sexual orientation with elementary school kids. The Stranger then announced it was taking back its prior endorsement of Jones and supporting Reykdal instead. The Seattle newspaper also wrote that Jones failed to directly answer a reporter who asked if Jones thought being gay was a sin.
OSPI recently added a section on "self-identity" to its recommended standards for elementary schools, which encourages young kids to understand how people express gender differently and, regarding gender identity, how to treat others with respect. Reykdal points out the high suicide rate among LGBTQ students, calling it a "life or death" issue.
"The school system should be creating an environment of love and acceptance as early as possible," Reykdal says. "I know where I stand, unequivocally. My opponent has to figure this out."
Jones now tells the Inlander that "everyone expresses gender differently and that makes sense to me." She says she's in support of the standards as they exist now. She admitted she wasn't aware of what the standards were when she was asked the question by the blog, and says, "I should not have responded to it at all." As for whether she thinks being gay is a sin, Jones says, "I don't think it is," pointing out that she took in two gay kids to her home who she met through her church.
LIFTING THE HAMMER
The main priority for both candidates involves having the state legislature fully fund education, as mandated by the state Supreme Court's 2012 McCleary decision. Dorn, the departing state superintendent, has been increasingly harsh on state lawmakers regarding their inability to fund McCleary, arguing that property-rich school districts using local levies instead of state money to pay teacher salaries is unconstitutional and leaves more rural districts unable to provide the same level of education. Dorn has even sued the larger districts, including Spokane, hoping the pressure would lead to a solution to the levy inequity.
Both candidates for Dorn's job say they would take a different approach, one a bit less aggressive, acknowledging that it's the legislature's responsibility as mandated by the Supreme Court.
"A much better partnership is needed," Reykdal says. "[Lawmakers] don't need a hammer anymore."
Reykdal says the next superintendent needs to be able to tell the legislature how to get results with the money devoted to funding schools. He plans to make OSPI into an office that can show lawmakers what does and doesn't work, backed by research. He says now that OSPI is a place that "has a lot of data." He wants to translate that into "actionable research."
Jones also uses the word "hammer" to describe what won't work as state superintendent.
"What I believe, having been in the system so long, is mandates and hammers are not the most effective way to change the system," Jones says.
She says instead that OSPI should provide support for districts and lawmakers centered around a common vision. That vision, she says, should be created with input from the legislature, along with the business community, advocacy groups and other agencies.
IMPROVING GRADUATION RATES
Reykdal has said that figuring out how to get 100 percent of students to graduate is "the most fundamental economic question of our time." He compares the goal to asking a family what an acceptable rate of traffic fatalities would be in their family. The answer would be zero, and he says a similar standard should be applied to graduation.
"Is 100 percent graduation the goal? You're damn right! It better be," he tells the Inlander..
Both candidates agree that the next layer in improving the graduation rate, which has risen under Dorn's leadership, is focusing on students of color and students living in poverty.
Reykdal says there should be more pathways to graduation through career and technical education for students who don't pass the statewide Smarter Balanced Assessment. That could mean a student can demonstrate their proficiency by building a small home at a construction trades program, or using another applied skill.
Currently, high school students must pass the statewide Smarter Balanced Assessments in order to graduate. When it comes to state testing, neither Reykdal nor Jones say they want to get rid of the Smarter Balanced Assessments, which are now a requirement for graduation. But they think there should be alternatives.
Jones believes that career and technical education is one of many ways students should be able to demonstrate proficiency. She thinks the state needs to start beefing up arts programs so that students can connect to their passion, whatever that may be.
"I think we definitely need options for students," she says. "Not everyone shows up as their best self in writing or typing." ♦