Six quotes to sum up the second WA schools chief candidate debate

Three candidates looking to lead Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. L-R: Reid Saaris, Chris Reykdal and David Olson. (Photos courtesy of campaigns)

Candidates running to oversee Washington’s public schools debated Tuesday night in a virtual, student-led debate.

Three contenders vying to be the next superintendent of public instruction participated: incumbent Chris Reykdal, who has held the job since 2017, Peninsula School Board member David Olson and Reid Saaris, who founded an education nonprofit.

The top two finishers in the Aug. 6 primary will advance to the November general election and compete for a four-year term in the job.

What is the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction?

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction is the primary agency overseeing public K-12 education in Washington state. The office allocates funding to schools from the state and federal government, implements state education laws and sets curriculum standards. Like all state agencies, the office can also request legislation, but cannot pass laws by itself.

The League of Education Voters and the Association of Washington Student Leaders hosted the 90-minute debate. About 230 people registered to attend, said Arik Korman, the League’s chief executive officer.

Here are six quotes from the debate that caught the Standard’s attention.

“We’re not addressing overcrowding in the way that we need to, and kids and teachers are suffering the consequences every day that we don’t address that.”

That’s Reid Saaris, who said when he was a teacher, the teacher next door to him had 40 kids in her class. Saaris also said he’s visited with teachers who have as many as 52 students in one middle school math class.

Saaris said he doesn’t believe that’s acceptable and thinks it’s important for the superintendent to take responsibility, put together a set of options for districts struggling with overcrowding, and track class sizes at the district and school levels.

Chris Reykdal called on the Legislature to provide more funding and highlighted his work pressing the Legislature for dollars to support additional school staff and to meet the state’s current class size requirements. He also touted caps on class sizes through fourth grade and said the later grades should have class size caps too.

David Olson focused on how community support can help districts pass local levies to fund efforts to reduce class sizes.

“I believe parents should have as much access as possible to their students.”

That’s David Olson, who championed parents’ rights in schools and attacked a press release from Reykdal’s office telling schools to wait until pending litigation clarifies disputes surrounding a parents’ rights initiative the Legislature passed that the office said may conflict with state law.

Saaris and Reykdal pointed out that due to a lack of wealth and privilege, not all parents have the same time or ability to be as involved in their child’s education. Reykdal called student privacy rights and parental rights a “delicate balance” and Saaris said he had an open door policy for parents as a teacher, but added that “we need to trust and respect professional educators.”

“You have to have inclusive curriculum. You have to see examples of the diversity and the richness of our state and our nation.”

That’s Chris Reykdal, who’s long been a champion for diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in Washington’s public schools. Reykdal said that if he’s elected again, he’ll ask the Legislature for more funding for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction’s civil rights division and go after districts that are “defying the civil rights of kids, particularly trans youth and LGBTQ+ youth.”

Saaris largely agreed with Reykdal’s stance on diversity and said listening to student experiences was his number one priority. Olson also supported listening to student voices on issues of racism and said policy changes alone won’t change a school’s environment.

In a separate answer, Olson said he would “not support student walkouts to support hate speech” and referenced “antisemitic comments and riots across the country,” presumably referencing protests surrounding Israel’s assault on Gaza. Western Washington high school students staged a walkout in April to protest U.S. military aid to Israel.

“We have multi-trillion dollar industries working really hard to capture student attention, and it’s hard as a teacher to compete with that.”

Saaris here was talking about social media and phone use in classrooms. When Saaris taught at Rainier Beach High School in Seattle this past year, he got a cell phone locker so kids could store their phones at school but still access them in case of emergencies or other issues. It was an adjustment, he said, but the result was greater student engagement and kids “laughing again.” He wants to work with districts to support different solutions to restrict cell phone or social media use in schools.

Olson, too, talked about his district’s cell phone restrictions, and how they’ve benefited the students in Peninsula’s schools.

Reykdal agreed that districts will need different solutions: “The state superintendent can’t ban phones, and I don’t believe in banning anything anyway,” he said. But Reykdal also said he will call on districts to come up with a formal cellphone policy and that he’d like schools to limit screen time in general.

“There’s so many policies and regulations that are being pushed down in the classroom that are sort of forcing teachers to all become the same and be mechanical. They know how to teach.”

That’s Olson. He said he believes teacher autonomy and local control will help reduce burnout and turnover in the profession. He wants to end state regulations that he thinks limit teachers’ ability to do their jobs and take up their time.

Saaris cited a statistic: 20% of educators left their schools in the most recent year data is available for, he said. “I’m a triathlete and love running up the hills around here, but I was exhausted in the current environment,” he said, referencing his own time as a teacher and his efforts to support students dealing with mental health issues, including suicidal thoughts.

Reykdal pushed back on Saaris’ statistic and said that if you disaggregate the data, teacher retention is relatively strong in Washington because “we’ve worked hard to pay teachers a market wage.” Reykdal said paraeducators are the ones contributing most to high turnover. He noted his proposal to the Legislature to give paraeducators a “living wage.” It did not pass, although schools did receive more dollars they could use to hire paraeducators, also known as teacher’s aides.

All three candidates said paraeducators need more support — and schools need more paraeducators.

“I don’t want anyone to think for a second the state couldn’t fall prey to the school privatization cult that is all over this country right now.”

It won’t surprise anyone following education issues in Washington that Reykdal is against privatizing schools. “I’m a spiritual person, but my tax dollars should not go to fund church schools,” said Reykdal, who credits his own public school education with helping him break a cycle of poverty in his family. “Those are private institutions and private choices.”

Reykdal said defending public money for public schools would remain one of his top priorities if reelected. He also said one of the first things he’d do is propose a budget to ramp up education spending to match inflation and fully fund special education, which his office has asked the Legislature to do for years.

Saaris said his first action in office would be to try to bring universal access to mental health care for kids. He also wants to introduce a “budget stabilization agreement” to ensure that the state won’t “divest from K-12 education,” as public school funding in Washington is tied to enrollment, which is dropping.

The funding model, Saaris said, is hurting low-income students, and he’s hoping to address that.

Olson, too, focused on money, saying “the state funding model needs to be reimagined, reevaluated and reprioritized.” He also said he’d like to increase funding for special education and school buses and drivers.

— By Grace Deng, Washington State Standard

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: info@washingtonstatestandard.com. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and X.

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