By Arlene Kiyomi Dennistoun
Northwest Asian Weekly
Voters in the Nov. 8 election must choose between two highly qualified candidates for the state’s top educator — Superintendent of Public Instruction. Erin Jones brings the weight of 25 years’ experience as an educator and an administrator. Rep. Chris Reykdal brings 13 years of experience in budget and public administration, including five years as a lawmaker. The superintendent race is important because the choice impacts everyone in the state with a child in the public education, K-12 system.
Reykdal and Jones have impressive endorsements. Reykdal has the support of about 140 groups or individuals, including current Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn and former Gov. Christine Gregoire. Jones has about 122 endorsements, including the Asian Pacific American Caucus of the Washington State Democrats and the Seattle Times.
Jones and Reykdal have vastly different experiences and come from widely divergent backgrounds. But each has similar values and priorities, such as embracing diversity and not punishing school districts by suing them as Dorn has. Neither would consider closing down schools to pressure the legislature into acting faster to fund basic education.
Both candidates are dedicated to closing opportunity gaps, modifying standardized testing, and have plans for efficiencies, budget proposals to fund education, and addressing the levy cliff looming over school districts.
“Team change” is a campaign theme for Jones. She’s been an educator for the past 25 years as a volunteer, a private and public school teacher, a late night director, and an instructional coach. She was an assistant superintendent of Student Achievement, at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) for three years and was also a school district director.
Jones was raised in the Netherlands and speaks Dutch, Spanish, French, and English. She was adopted by white parents after her biological parents gave her up for adoption and grew up as a “third culture kid.”
Jones received state recognition as the most innovative foreign language teacher in 2006 and was nationally recognized as the Milken Educator for Washington state in 2007.
She does a lot of cultural competency training at the university level and for teachers.
Jones chose not to work and had “a little school in the garage,” where she taught five days a week, eight hours a day, and tutored students after school. “I wasn’t getting paid, but I taught.” Later, Jones taught in Tacoma, Federal Way, South Bend, Ind., and Spokane. “I’ve had a lot of diverse experiences with a lot of diverse populations in Washington. I think it’s important for the state superintendent to know both sides of the state because they are very different.”
Jones doesn’t think it’s odd that the teachers’ union didn’t endorse her. “I don’t have a history of advocating for the union. My opponent has a history of working with the union and advocating for their issues. But I still have a lot of support from teachers.”
Jones’ biggest challenge in this race is her lack of experience with the legislature, although she has ample experience as an administrator.
Reykdal was a high school teacher for three years after graduating from college.
Reykdal has been a legislator for the past five years. He was vice-chair of the House Education Committee for two years and previously served on the former Education Appropriations Committee. Reykdal’s experience as a public administrator and budget wonk was mostly in positions with the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.
If elected, Reykdal will be the first superintendent in about 30 years to have children in the public school system. He said that’s significant because the world has changed so dramatically in the last five years. His children will be in the system when the state has “high stakes” testing, the narrowing of the curriculum because of the 24-credit graduation requirement with an emphasis on science and math. “There’s a de-emphasis on art and music — the stuff that creates a whole child. My kids are the first generation to have all these requirements.” Reykdal said he sees what the high stakes accountability looks like for kids through the eyes of a parent, so “it’s very real for me. I feel the massive anxiety every spring when testing starts.”
Reykdal has a graduate degree in public administration, finance, and performance management, so he thinks about how to change the game for children in poverty.
Reykdal is the youngest of eight children, and was a low-income student with alcoholism issues in his family. He was separated from his siblings at times, and lived in homes with unfinished walls.
Our public education budget is the biggest policy document we have, and given his experience, Reykdal said, “I think that’s the strength I bring, and having relationships in the legislature — it’s great to know who the players are.”
One of the issues that muddied the waters for Jones is The Stranger’s pulling back its endorsement of her for Reykdal because of statements Jones made about teaching LGBTQ issues to 5-year-old students and fourth graders. Jones explained she made the mistake of responding in a hurry to a blog request from a very conservative social media blog, without taking the time to read the standards all the way through. “I’m not a politician. I was working full-time and managing my campaign when I answered the blog request. I made a mistake.”
After The Stranger had pulled back its endorsement, Jones wrote an open letter to the paper stating she is a “longstanding, strong supporter of LGBTQ children and adults and their rights to be treated equally, respectfully, and lovingly in their schools and communities.” Her answer to whether or not being LGBTQ is a choice or a sin was “NO.”
“I’d love to have teachers include diversity in their curriculum, so they know how to have sensitive conversations. We don’t have a safe place to talk about them in a safe and honest way, and that’s why bullying is on the rise.”
Reykdal hasn’t been asked about his position on the LGBQT issue because as The Stranger pointed out, his statement didn’t raise a concern. Reykdal stated, “The standards do not promote cross-dressing and other fabrications of the extreme right. They teach gender identity and self awareness. These are good things not to be vilified.”
The McCleary mandate
In 2012, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled unanimously in McCleary vs. State that Washington violated the constitutional rights of children by failing to live up to its “paramount duty” to amply fund the education of all K-12 students.
Although it may seem like there’s little, if any, progress being made by the legislature to fund basic education fully, Reykdal said there is — it’s just not happening as quickly as expected. The legislature has added $2 billion to education in the last two years, and full funding means the legislature must come up with $3.5 billion more.
Reykdal doesn’t just want to be the hammer, like Dorn and the Washington Supreme Court has been. He said his priority as superintendent is to present a bipartisan plan to fund basic education. Reykdal believes the superintendent’s job is an executive role that requires putting intricate pieces together. For that to happen, the superintendent must be a finance person and have relationships with key legislators.
Jones knows the funding must come from Olympia and is committed to tackling the politics of it. But she’s driven by achieving results and said OSPI must reach out to successful schools to model after them. She cited the Bridgeport School District as a good example. The school is tiny and only had 47 graduates. The students are over 95 percent Latino and over 95 percent have free or reduced lunch. But they managed to have about 95 percent of students graduate on time, and about 95 percent met the standard assessment for English. “There are school districts that are doing amazing work and if we never get out of Olympia, how are we going to share their stories and find out about the different ways districts and school are doing well?” said Jones.
Reykdal said he hasn’t gone out to visit schools like Jones has because “I don’t use schools as a prop for my campaign.” Kids are there to learn, teachers are there to teach, and they don’t need someone seeking office to go in there for “photo ops.”
A looming shortfall
Jones said thousands of teachers will be laid off if the levy issue is not fixed. It’s a temporary solution, but Jones will advocate freezing levies at current levels until education is fully funded. That will require legislation and school districts will be able to keep their teachers, even if the state can’t adequately fund basic education. Jones believes communities should have the option to pay for special projects by collecting levies, but not to raise teacher salaries, which creates inequities. For example, the Everett School District pays teachers about $20,000 more than teachers in Marysville or Seattle.
The legislature must first define basic education compensation, said Reykdal, for the state to pick up the tab on increased teacher compensation. Basic education is now defined as a formula where there’s so many teachers per school, so many buses, so many administrators, but hasn’t determined what basic education compensation is. Once the legislature does that, the state will pick up the cost of compensation.
Reykdal co-sponsored a bill that the Senate rejected, but that passed the House, so the levy cliff would align with full funding of basic education. “It’s a terrible concept, wanting that pressure of solving McCleary and the only way to do that is by keeping the pressure on the school districts and scare them into thinking they will lose a quarter of their funding.”
Jones received support from backers of charter schools, but she’s a big “no” and “yes” on charter schools. Her “yes” is for innovative school models that already exist. “As a movement across the country, there are just as many bad as good charter schools as there are public schools. I don’t believe charter schools are the answer to closing the opportunity gap.” Jones visited one of the two legally operating charter schools in Spokane and liked what she saw. An international student body told her they get to do hands-on projects and learn subjects outside of textbooks. This charter school had a teacher and two other adults in the class.
“We are not supporting our black and brown students very well,” said Jones. Many people are anti-charter schools. We can’t say no, without considering a yes. For Jones, “yes” means considering charter schools that are working, and how to replicate those models. “What I don’t want is a bunch of private corporations coming in and taking over schools, but options and innovations are exciting.”
Reykdal doesn’t think charter schools are constitutional yet, and he voted against the charter fix in the legislature because of the backdoor use of general funds through the lottery. The Spokane charter schools are legal because there’s direct accountability to the school board. Voters can vote the Spokane board members out if they think the charter school is failing.
Jones “absolutely” believes the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (standardized testing for students) may be biased against immigrants. “For the Asian community, I personally understand how it is not to understand the language or the culture.” Jones will fight the federal government not to require testing until kids have been in the country for at least two years. “It makes zero sense to test a kid with one year of English — it’s almost criminal. If elected, she’ll push for a bias and fairness review to see whether the test measures what it’s supposed to measure.
Reykdal strongly agrees with Jones on not testing kids who’ve been in the country for less than a year. He said tests should measure state and district progress. Instead, the state chose to link the test results to graduation, making it a high stakes test. HB 2214 would have kept the assessments in place and de-link them from graduation. There was tremendous bipartisan support in the House of Representatives, but the chair of the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee blocked the bill — it never saw the light of day and never had a hearing.
Shutting down schools and suing school districts
Randy Dorn is suing seven school districts and threatening closure of all schools, and despite Dorn’s endorsement, Reykdal disagrees with this. “The reality is 30-40 years of funding neglect has left the schools to do what they need to do, and they shouldn’t be punished for doing their jobs.” Reykdal believes private organizations will pick up where Dorn left off if he decides to drop his lawsuit.
Jones agrees with Reykdal. “No, no, no,” said Jones in response to whether schools should shut down to pressure the legislature, or whether to sue school districts. “That’s just punishing the wrong people. It’s wrong because schools and school districts don’t have the power to create money to pay the bills.”
Reviewing OSPI efficiency
Reykdal plans on reviewing staffing levels at OSPI because of his background in performance management. He completed a partial Baldrige criteria process at the Washington Community and Technical Colleges Board, which is a stringent assessment tool for improving effectiveness and increasing value to customers and stakeholders, and helping to ensure long-term financial growth and sustainability of an organization. The board was in a financial crisis, said Reykdal.
Jones plans to meet every employee at OSPI in her first 100 days — pretty ambitious since there are 400 employees. She wants to assess and determine whether OSPI is working efficiently and cut back on red tape that may be hindering educators and school districts.
OSPI needs to see that what we’re doing makes sense, and “we’re not just doing things because we’ve been doing it forever.” Her goal isn’t to eliminate positions, but she wants to reassign people to do the jobs they’re good at doing.
Jones also plans to use videography and social media to share where she’s going and why, rather than to just say she’s not in the office. “I love transparency,” she said.
Jones will post updates on Facebook. “I want people to know where and how I’m spending my time.”
Jones looks at the work created at the state level that trickles down to the school districts. If the school is a Title 1 school, for example, you almost need a whole office just to manage the paperwork. Title 1 is a federal program that provides funds to improve the academic achievement of students from low-income families or are in foster homes.
“If OSPI requires school districts to do reports and create data that we’re not even reading, or that’s not useful, then we need to stop doing it,” said Jones. “I think there are bureaucratic tasks and mandated data or reports that no one is using, or even reading. Or if it’s an 80-page report, let’s make it a 40-page report. There’s got to be more efficient ways to do the work.”
Arlene can be reached at email@example.com.