OLYMPIA — State schools chief Randy Dorn won a very heated battle for his job four years ago, and it’s been a bumpy ride since.
Early on, his brash and forthright nature led to clashes with legislative leaders. And in 2010 his arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol caused some to wonder if he’d resign.
Since taking office, he’s seen funding for schools drop, demand for reform rise and survived an attempt to strip his office of its independence by making him answer to the governor.
While the debate on education moved back onto the front burner of state politics this year, surprisingly nobody is mounting a serious challenge to Dorn’s re-election as superintendent of public instruction.
His four opponents are showing few signs of campaigning and even less of fundraising. If Dorn captures more than 50 percent of the vote in the Aug. 7 primary then, by law, only his name will appear on the November ballot for essentially ratification of his victory.
“It seems incredulous to me that Randy Dorn is not opposed by anyone substantial,” said Cathy Allen, owner and president of The Connections Group political consulting firm in Seattle. “No one speaks his praises, and we end up with education that looks worse.”
Dorn, a 58-year-old Eatonville resident, anticipated opposition, too, but wasn’t shocked none materialized.
“I believe there were entities out there trying to recruit someone for this race,” Dorn said. “There’s been some tough times. There’s been some difficult issues. People close to it understand how difficult the job is. I think I am the most uniquely qualified person in the state for this job.”
At stake is a four-year term as the de facto voice of students enrolled in Washington’s 295 school districts. The job pays a base salary of $121,618, which is not a bad sum but is less than the majority earned by superintendents of those local school districts.
Dorn shares the ballot with four men. They are:
• Don Hansler of Spanaway, a former teacher and administrator from the Bellevue School District, who ran unsuccessfully in 2004 and 2008;
• John Blair of Vashon Island, a former teacher who owns a heating and air conditioning business and ran in 2004;
• James Bauckman of Bellingham, a first-time candidate who owns a film production company;
• and Ronald Higgins of Richland, a retired engineer and substitute teacher.
As of Tuesday, Dorn had raised nearly $100,000 for his campaign. None of the others reported any contributions.
For Dorn that’s a far cry from 2008 when he corralled the backing of the powerful Washington teachers union and the state Democratic Party when he took on 12-year incumbent Terry Bergeson in what many experts viewed as the most exciting schools chief race in more than a decade.
In his tenure, Dorn’s been independent if not unpredictable. On some issues he’s tightly aligned with teachers in the Washington Education Association and at other times he’s in sync with education reformers in Stand for Children and other groups.
“WEA thinks I’m too much of a reformer and (Stand for Children) probably think I’m not enough of a reformer,” Dorn said.
Teachers like Dorn because he kept his promise to eliminate the Washington Assessment of Student Learning tests and replace them with a less time-consuming system.
He’s hammered lawmakers and the governor on the need for additional school funding and not hedged his support for coming up with new revenue, a course that seems inevitable since the state Supreme Court ruled the Legislature is not living up to its constitutional responsibility to fully fund the basic education of students.
“If you want a 21st century school system you are going to need new revenue to pull that off,” he said.
To the cheers of teachers and chagrin of reformers, Dorn opposes Initiative 1240 to allow charter schools in Washington. He said the measure wrongly puts oversight of charter schools in the hands of a new commission rather than under the auspices of his office.
Yet WEA didn’t endorse Dorn until last week. Union president Mary Lindquist said it wasn’t because of dissatisfaction. Rather, members wanted to focus first on choosing sides in contested primaries and the race for governor where education will be a decisive issue in the duel between Democrat Jay Inslee and Republican Rob McKenna.
“We know Randy pretty well. It’s a voice we can count on,” she said. “Randy’s caught in the shadow of (the governor’s) campaign. That’s what happens when education gets moved to the front burner.”
Stand for Children and other reform groups such as League of Education Voters and Democrats for Education Reform applaud Dorn’s push for adopting national standards for curriculum known as Common Core and his willingness to make performance an important element in evaluating teachers.
They were frustrated by the state’s failure to receive any funds in the federal Race to the Top competition. Washington’s ban on charter schools cost the state and inspired these groups to pursue the initiative.
None of them is likely to endorse Dorn.
“We have not made a decision. There are some further conversations we need to have with Superintendent Dorn,” said Shannon Campion, executive director of the state chapter of Stand for Children. “The lack of a rich debate in this race is really unfortunate.”
Frank Ordway, director of government relations for the League of Education Voters, said his organization won’t endorse in this contest.
“We may disagree but the disagreements don’t warrant a campaign to unseat him,” he said. “Even though we don’t agree with Randy on some things, I will say his door is always open. Randy works very hard to bring people to the table.”
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; email@example.com
What’s the job?
At stake is a four-year term as the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction. This person oversees policy making for the state’s public school system, from pre-school through high school. The annual base salary is $121,618.
Ronald L. “Ron” Higgins
Experience: Substitute teacher in Richland, Pasco, Kennewick, Burbank, Finley, and Kiona-Benton City school districts; licensed school bus driver, and a retired engineer from U.S. Department of Energy. This is his first run for elected office.
Experience: Owner, Revolutionary Productions film company; head of The Majestic Academy, and co-founder of Pioneer Meadows Montessori School in Ferndale. This is his first run for elected office.
Experience: Former teacher and administrator in the Bellevue School District, and currently a volunteer teacher in Eatonville and Orting School districts. He ran unsuccessfully for this seat in 2004 and 2008.
John Patterson Blair
Hometown: Vashon Island
Experience: Vashon School Board, 2000-04; ran unsuccessfully for this seat in 2004 and 2008; former teacher, and current owner of Thermal Control Inc.
Experience: Incumbent superintendent of public instruction; former Democratic state representative; elementary and middle school teacher; elementary and high school principal, and executive director of the Public School Employees of Washington.