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Why the Race for the Washington State Schools Chief Is Complicated — and Could be the Last

By Carolyn Phenicie | February 14, 2016

Photo: Washington State Charter Schools Association
The 74’s Carolyn Phenicie examines local and state level elections where education will play a critical role this November.
The next K-12 schools chief in Washington state dodged — at least for the moment — having to add one more difficult task to his or her post-election agenda: overseeing the demise of their office and the disbandment of the state Board of Education.
In a state already rife with meaty education challenges — figuring out a way to fully fund public schools under the daily threat of court-imposed fines, deciding the fate of charters — lawmakers were considering throwing another into the mix.
A House bill asked voters to amend the state constitution to eliminate the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and the state school board. Those duties would have morphed into a new state education department headed by a director appointed by the governor.
The bill, sponsored by Democratic House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, died in committee after its Feb. 8 public hearing but there’s some expectation it could resurface in the 2017 session. That would put it squarely on the plate of one of the five contenders running this  year for state schools superintendent, a $122,000-a-year job that carries a four-year term. (The 74: Funding Crisis, Charter War, Teacher Shortage: Who Wants to be WA. State Schools Chief. These Five.)
Incumbent Superintendent Randy Dorn is not seeking re-election.  Washington is one of only 13 states that elects its highest K-12 schools official and while the job is nonpartisan, educational politics abound here.
The most-pressing issue, observers said, will be the state’s funding crisis.
“That’s like an 800-pound gorilla riding on the shoulders of the governor and the superintendent and everybody,” said Tom Halverson, director of the education policy master’s program at the University of Washington.
The state’s high court in 2012 ruled that Washington isn’t sufficiently funding basic education costs. The state legislature was supposed to be following a three-phase plan to reach a goal of full funding by 2018. Lawmakers weren’t making enough progress, the court ruled, first holding lawmakers in contempt, and then fining them $100,000 per day.
Tariq Akmal, interim chair of the department of teaching and learning at Washington State University, also cited the so-called McCleary decision as the biggest issue.
Part of the problem for funding all of these initiatives is that Washington, for the most part, does not have income taxes. Revenues come primarily from sales and property taxes, which makes it more difficult for lawmakers to cover shortfalls in times of economic downturn.
“As people say, you often see very good politics in these kinds of times, but you may not see good decision-making or good governing,” Akmal said.
Though often viewed as a liberal state, Washington is divided between its eastern half, which is more rural and conservative, and the liberal western half, home to Seattle and Tacoma, Halverson explained. The funding issue is one of the few that hits every corner of the state, he explained.
The court has also intervened in the area of charter schools. In September 2015, the justices, in a divided ruling, said the state’s voter-approved charter referendum violated constitutional requirements governing the funding for a system of “common schools.” Justices in the months since refused to reconsider their decision.
The state Senate passed a bill last month to preserve charters and convert their funding stream to state lottery revenues while the House is expected take up its version of charter legislation Feb. 19.
Halverson said the charter challenge primarily affects the western half of the state — most of the eight schools are in Seattle and Tacoma — so other things “are probably going to be fires that … burn a little bit brighter than the charter school piece.”
Akmal, too, said that the charter issue may only be because “big money has come in from the outside” although the Washington Education Association, one of the parties that brought the successful lawsuit, is also a major player in the debate.
The WEA, the state affiliate of the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, historically has been “the biggest and most powerful lobby in the state,” Halverson said.
The funding and charter issues are Washington-specific but state leaders are also dealing with national educational trends, specifically changes in testing and the opt-out movement, and a teacher shortage.
Washington lost its No Child Left Behind waiver in 2014 after the state legislature was unable to write a law tying test scores to teacher and principal evaluations in a way that satisfied the U.S. Department of Education. This meant every school in the state was deemed “failing,” and tied the hands of school leaders in how they could use federal dollars.
That will be a moot issue under the new Every Student Succeeds Act (which doesn’t speak to teacher evaluation and limits how much the federal education secretary can require in state policies) but Washington educational officials will still have to decide how to use testing and other metrics to measure school performance.
Complicating matters, there is a strong opt-out movement in the state. High school students in Seattle made news in April 2015 when the entire junior class at one high school boycotted state tests.  
Additionally, the state, like many others, is facing a massive teacher shortage. A survey of principals in November 2015 found 45 percent couldn’t fill all their classrooms with fully certified teachers who met job requirements. Almost three-quarters said they had to cover a classroom in the five days before taking a survey because there was no substitute available. Although the problem is statewide, it’s hit rural areas harder than other places, Halverson said.
Many races like this one — think the 2015 matchup in California between reform-minded Marshall Tuck and union-backed Tom Torlakson — often come to a candidate more aligned with education reform and one more aligned with the unions.
“I don’t know that we’ll get away for that,” Halverson said.  
Although the teachers union has “taken some blows” and the charter issue “caught them off guard,” it would be difficult for any candidate to run in “blatant or vigorous opposition” to the union, he added.
The WEA hasn’t made an endorsement yet. In the past, their backing has made a difference, Akmal said.
There will be a primary in August and the top two finishers will face each other in the general election in November.
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