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Six takeaways from the WA schools chief debate

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Six takeaways from the WA schools chief debate

May 21, 2024 | 6:35 pm ET
By Grace Deng
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Six takeaways from the WA schools chief debate
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From left to right: Reid Saaris, Chris Reykdal and David Olson. Photos courtesy of their campaigns.

Candidates running to lead Washington’s public schools debated Monday night on issues like student mental health, absenteeism and the role of parents in their kids’ education. 

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 August primary will advance to the November general election. 

The League of Women Voters of Washington held Monday’s candidate forum, which was guided by questions local high school students asked. Here are six takeaways.

Reykdal thinks Washington is doing a great job at public education. Predictably, his challengers don’t.

Olson quoted a Seattle Times editorial calling the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction a “cheerleader for mediocrity” and highlighted the state’s poor math scores and a litany of pending school closures.  

“When pro football teams are losing and not getting better, you get rid of the coach,” Olson said. “I think now is exactly the right time to bring in a new leader at OSPI.” 

Saaris said there’s been a lot of talk — but not enough action. 

“We’ve fallen so far these last eight years,” Saaris said. 

Reykdal disagreed and highlighted metrics to defend Washington’s schools. 

“To suggest for a second that our educators aren’t delivering when we’re one of the highest performing states is disrespectful,” Reykdal said. 

Everyone wants more state funding, especially for special education.

Washington’s Legislature has never met its mandate to fully fund special education, despite being required to by law — and all three candidates want voters to know they’re upset about it. 

Reykdal said the Legislature has advanced a billion dollars to special education since he’s been in his role, but emphasized that he’s still working on it — and he wants higher pay for teacher’s aides, also known as paraeducators. 

Saaris said we’re not meeting our “legal and moral responsibility” to fund special education. He also mentioned talking to paraeducators who are paid so little they’re worried they’re going to become homeless while trying to support homeless students. 

“As soon as my kid starts to build a relationship that paraeducator is rotated out of the system because they can’t sustain it any longer,” Saaris said. “We need to fix that.” 

Meanwhile, Olson is ready to use his “bully pulpit to pound on the door of the attorney general and the Supreme Court to demand that we put the state Legislature on — what do you call it — in contempt!” 

Reykdal and Saaris clashed on districts’ management of federal pandemic aid.

Saaris believes Washington’s schools have consistently failed to use their resources well and referenced an audit that found the state fell short with its oversight of how school districts used federal COVID aid. He said the state needs to “rebuild confidence” after “mismanaging the federal pandemic relief dollars.”

But Reykdal said there was “no such finding of mismanagement.” In fact, he’s “very proud of our districts and the way they spent their federal money,” likening the findings to schools putting out fires first, rather than “filling out the paperwork on how you address the fire.” 

“The only finding of our state is that we didn’t make school districts post the information on their websites fast enough,” Reykdal said. 

The audit in question was released in September last year by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General.

It concluded that the public “did not have sufficient insight into how” districts planned to spend the federal aid. And it said the state did not ensure districts’ “compliance with all Federal requirements and guidance for creating transparent and understandable” spending plans. But auditors also said the state was responsive to the problems identified in the report and took corrective action to address them.

All three candidates blamed smartphones for declines in student mental health.

Olson has a message to parents: Read “The Anxious Generation” by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. It’s a book that argues smartphones and overprotective parenting have led to an “epidemic of mental illness.” 

“Young boys could be looking at pornography at one o’clock in the morning. They’re coming to school exhausted. Young girls are on Instagram and Snapchat being cyberbullied, body shaming, it’s ruining their mental health,” said Olson, who praised his school district for its phone-free policy

Reykdal said the rise of technology has contributed to a “global problem.” He touted his office’s work on “regional mental health networks” and said he’ll be asking school districts to “take greater ownership on cell phone policies.” 

Saaris and Reykdal (politely) clashed again: “The state superintendent of public instruction’s office has not been doing an incredible job on this issue,” Saaris said. He pointed to Washington’s poor performance compared to other states in Mental Health America’s mental health issues rankings

Saaris’ ideas included supporting schools that want to go phone-free, universal access to mental health care and implementing the U.S. Surgeon General’s guidance on youth mental health and social media. He also suggested expanding recess and giving kids “more opportunities in the real world instead of the digital world.” 

When it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion — and the role of parents in schools — one candidate is not like the others.

Saaris said he supports local control but “errs on the side of inclusion” when it comes to issues like trans girls and women participating in sports. Reykdal was bullish about his support of LGBTQ+ students: “Lean with humanity, don’t start with division,” he said. 

Olson said he agrees with Reykdal on inclusionary practices, but he doesn’t agree with “trans athlete males competing against females,” referring to trans girls who compete in girls and women’s sports.

“I don’t know if that’s fair to females,” Olson said. “I personally do not agree with it. But there are the laws, that, you know, have to be obeyed.” 

The U.S. Supreme Court and lower federal courts have found that Title IX protects trans people, including trans athletes, but it’s still unsettled law. There’s little scientific evidence that trans women have a biological advantage over cisgender women: One study found that trans women athletes may actually be at a disadvantage due to the impacts of their gender transition. 

Olson also said he’d support an “opt-in” system for sex education, rather than “opt-out,” to give parents more control, and that parents have “every right to know what’s going on in school every day.” Saaris and Reykdal demurred, suggesting parental involvement in schools is about finding the right balance. 

Is artificial intelligence actually intelligent? Saaris doesn’t think so

“AI will be as transformative as anything we have ever seen in public education,” Reykdal said, adding that AI can help teachers differentiate between students’ learning progress in crowded classrooms. Reykdal called the state a leader on artificial intelligence. Meanwhile, Olson called his district a leader on artificial intelligence. 

Saaris, on the other hand, said he thinks the “intelligence” part of “artificial intelligence” is a misnomer. He wants to focus on “human intelligence and kids’ ability to think critically and independently and creatively.” 

“I was disappointed that one of the folks working with OSPI on artificial intelligence said we don’t need to train the kids to think critically anymore independently — AI can do that for us now. I think that’s really dangerous,” Saaris said, seemingly attacking Reykdal for calling AI a “really cool critical thinking tool.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred incorrectly to a state audit of federal COVID aid meant to buy laptops, tablets, and internet hotspots for staff and students during the pandemic. The story has been updated to describe the findings of the federal audit mentioned during the candidate forum.