OLYMPIA — Five candidates are running in Washington’s Aug. 4 primary against incumbent Chris Reykdal for Superintendent of Public Instruction, calling for more local control of schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The biggest concern among candidates is how to handle schooling during the pandemic, including reopening schools, ensuring all students have access to at-home resources and dealing with potential budget cuts. But candidates disagree on how to move forward.
Reykdal’s challengers include former teachers, an engineer, a school board director and a lawyer. Reykdal, who is running for his second term, has received the endorsement of the Washington Education Association, the state teachers’ union.
After Gov. Inslee announced school closures in the spring as COVID-19 cases were rising, Reykdal had to prepare districts for remote learning.
Some districts were well-prepared, Reykdal said, while others took longer to switch to remote learning.
Maia Espinoza, a top contender to face Reykdal in the November election, said schools were “ill-prepared” to handle distance learning. She said the approach to and curriculum for online learning was completely disorganized.
“We were really exposed to be quite vulnerable to a crisis like this,” Espinoza said.
Espinoza has raised about $30,000 for her campaign, significantly more than any of the other challengers to the incumbent. Reykdal has raised about $63,000.
Candidate Dennis Wick, former member of the Snohomish School District Board, said he was “disappointed” in the state’s response to COVID-19, adding there should have been more guidance and resources for school districts.
“It was basically all left up to the districts to figure it out,” Wick said.
Other candidates disagreed with schools closing altogether.
Stan Lippmann, a former lawyer and local perennial candidate, said the pandemic was engineered by Microsoft founder Bill Gates to terrorize people, and it was being taken too seriously. His theory on Gates is one of many debunked conspiracy theories that have gained traction related to Gates and the pandemic, according to multiple media reports.
Lippman was disbarred in 2008 for misuse of fees, according to the Washington Bar Association.
David Spring, a former teacher at Bellevue College and business owner, strongly supports local district control. He called the decision to shut down the schools a violation of the state constitution.
Reykdal said he is generally a huge fan of local control, but the pandemic was a matter of life and death.
“That’s the dilemma,” he said. “If you leave that up to community by community, you may not get the public health outcomes you need.”
Moving forward, Reykdal said he wants all schools to have the opportunity to reopen, but it is up to them on how exactly to do that.
“That’s what we’re trying to do is really empower local school districts to make decisions about how to open and how to do it most effectively,” he said.
Still, candidates think the state is doing too much. Spring disapproved of Reykdal’s recommendations that students be required to wear masks or remain 6 feet apart.
“These kinds of things are not being well thought out,” Spring said.
As school districts prepare for the future, Espinoza said the state needs to begin using an online school curriculum as an option for all parents and districts. The curriculum would be the standard for districts and parents to refer to when it comes to online learning.
Along with a new curriculum, Espinoza called for a new system be adopted statewide that can support online learning. The program doesn’t have to be new, she said, but it should already be tested and negotiated for a good price.
“Those just need to be made more readily available and given as an option to parents,” she said.
Espinoza said the way to ensure all students have equal access to learning is to give them more options, such as an online curriculum. Parents always will choose what is best for their kid, she said.
“I think the more we provide options in our public schools, the more we provide equity,” Espinoza said.
Reykdal said it can be really challenging to try to ensure proper resources for every district, especially given the state’s budget shortfall of $4.5 billion. Most of the public school’s budget is constitutionally protected, Reykdal said, and the state also received federal coronavirus relief money that already has gone out to districts.
“We feel good about the financial stability of schools and yet we’ve got to make sure (school districts) get everything the legislature intended them to get this year,” he said.
For some candidates, the legislature’s push for a comprehensive sexual health education bill is another example of the state overstepping in local district’s decision-making. The bill, passed last session, calls for age-appropriate comprehensive sexual health education at various points in a child’s education. It requires parents be notified when courses are taught; they can view materials and opt out.
The curricula is chosen by the district but must be approved by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Espinoza has spoken out repeatedly against the bill and took part in the effort to get Referendum 90 on November’s ballot. The curriculum included in this bill is not age appropriate, she said, and not something she wants her child to learn.
“I’m not an anti-sex ed parent,” she said.
Schools should not be a political place, she said, and this bill was passed in a political way.
Spring called the bill unconstitutional, citing that it was the symptom of a bigger issue with the state making decisions for each district. Ron Higgins, a substitute teacher and former engineer, called the bill “totally inappropriate,” adding if he was elected, comprehensive sexual health education would not be taught.
“My first job is the health and safety of the kids,” Higgins said.
Wick said he respects the efforts behind Referendum 90, supporting the rights of citizens to weigh in on issues that get passed in the legislature.
“This is a symptom of something bigger terms of people’s confidence in their school systems,” he said.
Reykdal said the policy already was in place at many school districts. He respects where supporters of Referendum 90 come from, but said the new law gives more parent protections than previously existed, allowing them to opt out.
“To suggest that nobody gets it because some people are uncomfortable with it is not what we do in schools,” Reykdal said.