OLYMPIA — Erin Jones and Chris Reykdal have seen a lot of each other as they compete to be the next administrator of the state’s public school system.
That’s because a lot of people want to see them.
The two candidates for superintendent of public instruction have shared a stage at close to 50 forums in every corner of Washington this year.
“People are interested,” Reykdal said. “Because it’s a nonpartisan race, folks who come don’t feel combative. They are totally positive.”
Those who’ve attended a forum or watched a video replay online probably noticed Jones and Reykdal have a lot in common.
In their personal lives, both are married with spouses working in education. And each have children; her three are grown and his two still attend public schools. Both also have been classroom teachers and spent their careers in the field of public education.
Philosophically, Reykdal, 44, and Jones, 45, are not far apart on the political spectrum either. Both are Democrats who seem comfortable with the lexicon of the party’s progressive social and fiscal policies.
On the litmus test of education issues, they’re not fans of high-stakes tests and each voted against the charter school initiative in 2012. Now, both prefer the approach of Spokane Public Schools, which authorized two publicly funded, privately run charter schools as part of the district.
And on the means of fully funding public schools, as the Supreme Court required in its McCleary ruling, each envisions a conversation on reforming the use of levies and views a capital gains tax as a potential generator of dollars.
What sets them apart is the style and the approach they’ll bring if elected to the job of superintendent of public instruction.
The winner will succeed Randy Dorn, who is retiring after eight years in the role. He or she will get a four-year term at the helm of an agency charged with overseeing a K-12 public education system with 295 school districts and roughly 1.1 million students.
During Dorn’s tenure, there’s been improvement in student test scores, introduction of new standards and fierce fights about money during the recession and after.
Of late, his pointed criticism of lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee for not providing adequate funding for schools has created a rift with decision-makers. In July, Dorn sued several school districts, including Everett, saying their use of local property tax levies to pay teacher salaries is illegal.
Reykdal, a Democratic state representative from Tumwater, said he can rebuild a bridge between the OSPI and the Legislature. He said he will give lawmakers the detailed information they seek but won’t hesitate to provide his ideas as starting points.
“I’m action-oriented. I will take risks. I will not be pounding the table. I will not be suing local districts,” he said. “(Erin) is a facilitator. She’s passionate about leading but has not thought about all the ways to address the critical issues.”
Jones, who lives in Lacey and works in Tacoma public schools, said she’ll bring great passion to the job and involve voices outside of Olympia in the process.
“I’ve been a champion for kids. They need a champion to make sure their needs are met,” she said. “He’s super smart and has tons of experience in the Legislature. I bring a different level of passion and intensity to the work.”
Who are they
Jones was born in Minnesota. Her biological parents — her father was black and her mom was white — gave her up for adoption when she was 6 months old. Two white educators from Minnesota adopted her and the family moved to the Netherlands when Jones was 6.
Jones attended the American School at The Hague, returning to the United States to study at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. She and her husband moved to Tacoma 20 years ago, she said.
In her career, Jones has taught at schools in Tacoma and Spokane and worked four years at OSPI, three as an assistant superintendent to Dorn. She was the director of equity and achievement for the Federal Way School District and now runs the Advancement Via Individual Determination program, or AVID, for Tacoma Public Schools.
Reykdal was born in Snohomish, the youngest of eight children. He attended Central Elementary, Snohomish Junior High and Snohomish High School before enrolling at Washington State University; he was the first in his family to go directly from high school to college.
He earned a master’s in public administration at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill then returned to Washington where he worked for the state Senate before getting hired by the state Board of Community and Technical Colleges. Since 2002 he’s been operating budget director, deputy executive directors and, since 2011, associate director for the education division.
He won a seat in the state House of Representatives in 2010 and has been re-elected twice. He serves on the House Education Committee. He passed on running again in order to vie for statewide office.
The McCleary matter
When lawmakers return for the 2017 session, their focus will be on approving a plan to legally and fully fund public schools by the Sept. 1, 2018, deadline imposed by the state Supreme Court in the McCleary case.
A bipartisan, bicameral task force is trying to nail down what it will cost and in January will recommend ways to pay for it. The general assumption is lawmakers, and the next governor, must reform how school districts use local levies and make sure the state pays a greater share of teacher salaries. Estimates are that the latter point will cost as much as $3.5 billion in the next budget.
Reykdal said he envisions a swap of state property tax dollars for local property tax dollars. He also said there is a need for a new stream of revenue and he backs a capital gains tax. He opposes boosting the sales tax and business and occupation tax.
“I don’t pretend it’ll be the final solution,” he said. “The superintendent owes the governor and legislators a starting point. It’s time to take some risks.”
Jones said she thinks “we are going to have to find additional revenue to have a constitutionally funded system.”
Restructuring property taxes is “on the table” though she said she’s heard from very few people who view levy reform as a viable and workable solution.
The capital gains tax Inslee proposed in 2015 could be a winner for her.
“As a Democrat we need to support our governor,” she said.
Suing Everett schools
Reykdal and Jones both said if elected they would act to get OSPI out of a lawsuit Dorn filed in July against several school districts, including Everett, on their use of local property tax levies.
Dorn contends it is illegal for the districts to use those dollars to pay teacher salaries and other expenses of basic education that the state is supposed to cover. The suit argues the practice makes districts complicit in the state’s failure to meet its constitutional obligation to amply fund public schools.
The case is on hold in King County Superior Court until April 30.
However, since Dorn filed the suit, parents with children in four of the districts — none in Everett — joined as plaintiffs. They would be able to continue the case if OSPI withdraws.
Reykdal said he won’t urge them to drop the matter.
“They have a right to do that,” he said.
Jones said she would.
“Absolutely,” she said. “My request to them would be that their fight is not with school districts, it is with the Legislature. I would ask them to put their energies toward influencing the Legislature.”
In their corner
Jones and Reykdal had raised nearly the same sum of money for their campaigns as of Tuesday — $235,776 by her and $232,826 by him. And each has endorsements from Democratic and Republican figures representing the full spectrum of the state’s political class.
Jones’ list, per her campaign website, includes state Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, the Senate Majority floor leader and member of the Senate education committee, and Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, a former school board member who drafted the most recent levy reform proposal in the Legislature.
Retiring state Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, longtime voice of teachers on the Senate Education Committee, and Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Seattle, chairwoman of the House Early Learning and Human Services Committee, also are backing Jones.
Reykdal, meanwhile, touts support online of two former Democratic governors, Chris Gregoire and Mike Lowry, past OSPI chiefs Terry Bergeson and Judith Billings, and Dorn.
Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, D-Mukilteo, a counselor in Everett public schools and vice chairwoman of the House Education Committee, and Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, a leading conservative voice on the finance and budget committees, also are supporting Reykdal.
Meanwhile, two of the biggest forces in the debate on education policy and school funding are very clearly choosing sides.
Stand for Children, an emerging voice for charter schools and education reform, is behind Jones. Its independent political committee has spent $164,825 on mailers supporting her. The group’s donors include Connie Ballmer, wife of ex-Microsoft chief Steve Ballmer, and the political action committee of the Washington State Charter School Association. Connie Ballmer is the chief donor to that PAC as well.
The Washington Education Association, the powerful statewide teachers union, is backing Reykdal. It’s also given $85,000 to a new political committee, Forward With Education, to pay for television ads supporting him and opposing her. That committee had spent $100,500 as of Tuesday, according to records of the state Public Disclosure Commission.