Two former teachers vie for state schools chief job

Both Erin Jones and Chris Reykdal say they will be strong advocates for K-12 education in what could be a bruising debate over how to end the unconstitutional reliance on local school district levies to help pay school-employee salaries.

By Debbie Cafazzo

The News Tribune

Whoever wins the office of state Superintendent of Public Instruction in November is in for a big first year as the Legislature wrestles with a court-imposed deadline to overhaul the way public schools are funded.

Both Erin Jones and Chris Reykdal say they will be strong advocates for K-12 education in what could be a bruising debate over how to end the unconstitutional reliance on local school district levies to help pay school-employee salaries. They are seeking to replace Randy Dorn, who has been a forceful critic of legislative inaction on meeting the mandates of the state Supreme Court’s ruling in the McCleary case.

At a recent conference on early learning in Tacoma, both Jones and Reykdal talked about the need for more dollars for both preschool and K-12 education. They both say inequities in the way the state funds education perpetuate inequities in the quality of education kids receive. And both want to put some brakes on the volume of tests students take.

“The fact that we fund public schools based on property taxes ensures inequity,” Jones said. She favors funding schools based on need, rather than on what she calls an outdated model of equal amounts for all schools.

Reykdal backs a combination of levy reforms and capital gains taxes to generate new funding for education.

Jones said she voted against the charter school initiative in 2012, because the state was already underfunding existing schools. But she said that if the latest charter school law withstands a court test, she will make sure to serve kids in charter and traditional public schools. Reykdal said he agrees with Jones, but he believes the new charter law approved by the Legislature last year will face problems in court. He believes charters should operate under the authority of local elected school boards, as the charter schools in Spokane do.

Each would bring experience in the classroom as well as educational administrative experience to the job.

Jones, 45, has been a teacher in Tacoma and Spokane, earning a Washington state Milken Educator of the Year award while teaching at Spokane’s Rogers High School. She served as an assistant superintendent in the state superintendent’s office, and as director of the office’s Center for the Improvement of Student Learning. She was equity and achievement director in Federal Way and was director of the AVID study skills program in Tacoma Public Schools — a post she resigned in June so she could devote time to her campaign. While in Tacoma, she also helped train educators in cultural competency.

Reykdal, 44, taught for three years at Mark Morris High School in Longview and has also served on the Tumwater School Board. Since 2002, he has worked for the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges and is currently its education division associate director. He has been a member of the state House of Representatives, representing the 22nd District, since 2011. He is a Democrat who most recently served as vice-chairman of the House Education Committee. He’s giving up his House seat to run for state superintendent.

While Reykdal and Jones hold some similar positions, their personal biographies diverge.

Reykdal was born in the town of Snohomish and grew up the youngest of eight kids. His parents had only eighth-grade educations, and the family often relied on public assistance to make ends meet. Reykdal says it was public education that allowed him to break out of poverty. If he’s elected, he’ll be the first state superintendent in decades who will have kids attending the state system he’ll oversee: one in middle school and one in elementary school.

Jones, the daughter of a black man and white woman, began life in a Minnesota orphanage. She was adopted by two white educators who moved to the Netherlands to teach. She speaks Dutch, French and Spanish, in addition to English and often talks about how her family background helps her move easily between different cultures. If she’s elected, she will be Washington’s first African-American statewide office holder.

The nonpartisan campaign for state superintendent is usually a quiet one. But Jones drew criticism for comments she made in response to a candidate questionnaire from an education blog.

Asked about a set of state health standards that recommend teaching students about gender roles and gender identity, Jones wrote that she was concerned about “the ages at which serious issues related to sexuality are going to be addressed.” She stated that she didn’t think it was appropriate “to talk about gender or sexual orientation with 5-year-olds,” and that she didn’t want fourth-graders to feel additional pressure to “choose an orientation.” She said she favored conversations with middle-school students about gender and sexual orientation, as long as the focus is on providing information and promoting acceptance.

She also spoke about her support for the LGBTQ community, and she talked about the “two young adults who are gay who call me mom, after being disowned by their biological mothers.”

Reykdal’s answer was more concise: “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.”

Jones’ comments raised eyebrows among LGBTQ advocates. They also criticized her past volunteer work for Young Life, a Christian youth group. The criticisms prompted The Stranger newspaper in Seattle to rescind its endorsement of her and back Reykdal instead.

Jones says she has since educated herself about the issues, including the use of language. In a letter to The Stranger, she acknowledged that some of her wording could be misinterpreted as “equivocal.” She told The News Tribune she wrote the answers to the blog questionnaire in a hurry, while she also had a stack of other questionnaires to fill out.

She described herself as a non-denominational Christian. “But sometimes we don’t agree with the church,” she said of her family. “We have chosen to love people, whoever you are.”

Reykdal, asked to comment on Jones’ dust-up with the LGBTQ community, said “It’s not my issue.”

“I have been unequivocal about the need to support our LGBTQ students,” he said.

Reykdal also has come in for his share of criticism because of his strong backing from the labor movement. He earned the endorsement of the Washington Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

“I am not perfectly aligned with WEA,” Reykdal said. “But I am absolutely a champion for teachers.”

He said his support from unions connected to the building trades and from business stems from his advocacy for more career and technical education funding.

As of Friday, state Public Disclosure Commission records showed that Reykdal had more than $184,000 in campaign contributions and had spent nearly $146,000. Jones had collected nearly $160,000 and spent just over $100,000.

The bulk of Jones’ donations come from individual donors, while political action committee money makes up a small slice of her contribution pie. She also has the financial backing of a number of the state’s Indian tribes.

Reykdal’s campaign contributions come from a mixed group — just under half are from individuals, with unions and PACs making up a significant chunk of his contributors. He also has a sizeable number of business donations.

Reykdal has criticized Jones for accepting contributions from individuals whom his campaign characterizes as “wealthy school privatizers.”

Jones counters that many of her contributors are individual teachers and other educators.

“I am not the labor lady. I have never been in the Legislature to advocate for labor,” Jones adds.