OLYMPIA — While he campaigned for a second term as state schools chief this year, Washington state superintendent Chris Reykdal played the role of a public education optimist. But in a meeting with state lawmakers two weeks ago, he was a tired dad, worried about how his kids have struggled being away from school.
“This is a shitty system to be in right now,” he said in an education committee meeting aired on TVW. The remote instructional model “doesn’t work for a lot of kids.”
The pandemic has found Reykdal grappling with the many roles he plays. To Gov. Jay Inslee, he is a key adviser on some elements of the pandemic response, but Reykdal does not have the ability to issue executive orders. To superintendents in 300 school districts, he is a messenger of best practices for health and academics, but can’t intervene with reopening decisions. To lawmakers, he’s a staunch school funding defender, but he cannot pass laws, only suggest them.
“I have little authority,” he said in an interview. “And I’ve come to grips with that in the crisis.”
Not everyone agrees his hands are tied. He has also found ways to enact a few statewide changes, including relaxing requirements around attendance and graduation. Some worry about the implications of those moves.
But in a state where the governor has decided to take a largely hands-off approach to schools during the pandemic, Reykdal, a former state legislator, has come to see a need for a more centralized response. School districts, unions and parents are engaging in power struggles over reopening decisions, and the impact the closures have had on the state’s most vulnerable kids has yet to be fully quantified. Some are calling for more state oversight to equalize what districts are offering in the pandemic.
Reykdal said he supports legally binding disease metrics that districts must first clear to reopen, similar to the approach used in Oregon and California. He wants lawmakers to require districts to perform an academic evaluation for every child this spring and next fall.
And he wants more executive power to tinker with state education policy and move money around in the budget to address changing needs during the crisis.
“It would be helpful for the person who is in charge of public education in the state to be able to make some decisions that are universally applicable,” said Shannon McMinimee, an education attorney. “It’s super frustrating to go from seeing a kid getting in-person services all day, and then in another case see nothing but paper packets get sent home.”
Others aren’t convinced that more power would help him respond better.
“He [does] not present, in my estimation, a compelling case,” said state Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, chair of the House Education Committee.
From the old stone building that used to house the state Capitol, Reykdal spends his days as an intermediary for health and education information, communicating guidelines and dispelling rumors in a number of virtual meetings with local superintendents, union officials, state agencies and reporters.
“When people can’t get through to the governor, they call here,” said Karen Conway, an executive assistant who sits behind the front desk at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).
The early days of the pandemic were physically and mentally exhausting for Reykdal and his staff. Outside his office, jackhammers had been pounding the street “just as we went into panic mode,” he said in July.
Reykdal can’t compel school districts to teach a certain way, which is the domain of school boards, but his position does afford him certain powers. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, the 400-person agency he leads, is responsible for ensuring school districts comply with federal and state law, withholding funding if necessary, a lever the agency rarely pulls.
And he’s found ways to forge a statewide impact in the crisis. His agency has pushed out hundreds of pages of guidance to school districts on how to proceed during the pandemic. He’s been instrumental in putting forward temporary rules that relax certain educational statutes, including how school districts take attendance and define an hour of instruction — although those moves faced a legal challenge from parents over the summer, who claimed this gave districts too much latitude to cut down on education time for students with disabilities.
With more authority, he’d like to make these changes permanent, and has suggested decreasing the number of instructional hours school districts need to provide and relaxing graduation standards — areas he wanted to make more flexible before the pandemic.
Nicholle Mineiro, an education attorney at Cassady Mineiro, is unsure more freedoms would be a good idea.
“In some ways, we want them to take a more muscular and robust role in enforcing special education rights,” said Mineiro. “But in terms of changing things quickly that might negatively affect students, and doing it without comment and stakeholder input — that’s tough.”
Reykdal’s also used his office to share his thoughts on the direction school districts should take.
“We could have pushed harder for the governor to reopen schools for K-2 students,” he said, echoing a growing consensus from experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “It’s critical for literacy.”
But he’s gotten tangled up in red tape along the way. It took months of lobbying the Legislature and Inslee’s office to get his cut of money from the federal coronavirus relief package to spend on internet access and other areas.
Hugh Spitzer, a law professor at the University of Washington who specializes in state and local governments, said he’s not surprised Reykdal would feel constrained by his role.
“Article III, section 22 of the state constitution,” he read aloud over the phone. “The superintendent of public instruction shall have supervision over all matters pertaining to public schools, and shall perform such specific duties as may be prescribed by law.
“The tension is built in,” Spitzer said. “The first clause says he’ll have supervision over everything, but then the second one says, ‘as prescribed by law.’ And what if the Legislature says they should have no duties whatsoever?”
That’s not unique to Washington state. While it’s hard to say how Reykdal’s response to the pandemic compares with his counterparts across the country, much of what state superintendents do is married to the political will of lawmakers and their governors, said Steve Bowen, deputy executive director of state leadership for the Council of Chief State School Officers.
Reykdal has been reckoning with the responsibilities of his office for years. When dozens of school districts went on strike in 2018 after the Legislature released a large pot of money for teacher salaries, superintendents and lawmakers criticized him for stepping in too late with advice on how to spend the funds wisely, citing the large budget shortfalls districts projected the next year.
When asked about the criticism, he said he thought the Legislature would provide the guidance.
Balancing different interest groups has also been a delicate dance for Reykdal during the pandemic.
Maribel Vilchez, a teacher invited to speak on an OSPI task force during the pandemic, said she felt the suggestions her group made about prioritizing students’ social emotional health were reflected in the guidance the agency eventually released.
But Sharonne Navas, director of the Equity in Education Coalition, and other advocates point to areas where Reykdal failed to listen to groups that push for racial equity and outcomes for students of color.
They cite early guidance from OSPI on virtual learning, which seemed to give little thought to teaching English learners. Special education advocates say his agency has been loose on enforcing cases where districts hadn’t provided accommodations for students with disabilities. Parents who challenged the temporary rules around instructional hours say OSPI and the State Board of Education gave districts too much latitude.
“He knows where all the problems are,” Navas said in October. “But he has trouble getting to the root of them.”
Republican legislators accuse him of being deferential to the teachers unions. Some critics say his early statements in the pandemic appeared as if he was focusing more on concerns from staff than students who may need intensive services.
Emails between Inslee’s office and the staff of the Washington Education Association (WEA), the statewide union, show Reykdal used language provided by the union in a March speech. The union is a significant financial backer of his, helping him become the most well-funded candidate for the office since at least 2008. (Reykdal received 54% of the vote in the November election, defeating challenger Maia Espinoza.)
“WEA is one stakeholder, but we have many others who we work with while writing guidance,” Katy Payne, a spokesperson for OSPI, wrote in a statement.
A collaborative style
Though Reykdal has been searching for ways to expand his authority, he is known for being more collaborative than his predecessors. Randy Dorn, who held the post until 2016, employed a more confrontational approach to the job and sparred with legislators and school districts.
Born to a working class family in Snohomish, Reykdal, 48, knew he wanted to be an educator since he was in elementary school. He started his career teaching high school history, and ran for state schools chief in 2016 after a six-year stint in the Legislature, representing Tumwater as a Democrat in the House. Among his colleagues in Olympia, he has a reputation for being able to explain complicated systems clearly, usually with a visual aid and lots of data. In his office, he has a tower of giant Lego blocks in layers of green, red and blue that he uses to describe federal, state and local money for schools.
“Any time he stood up to speak on the House floor, I would always turn around to listen to what he had to say,” said Brad Hawkins, a Republican lawmaker.
His executive team members joke about his taste in music — a mixture of ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s pop that he listens to with a black iPod classic.
“Very common for him to be listening to teenage girl music,” Payne said. (Reykdal disputes this characterization of his taste.) Once, she says, she approached him in his office to ask for a brief meeting, and he interjected to ask, “Do you prefer Avril Lavigne or Michelle Branch?”
His vision for K-12 education is a system that connects better with preschool and higher education, and moves away from rigid systems for standardized testing and compliance. When asked about his vision for schools post-pandemic, he becomes a public education optimist.
“I hope it transforms,” he said. “You now can run a calculus class through Zoom. It is sucky that kids have lost traditional instructional hours. We need to assess learning loss. But I promise you we are not assessing other things they have learned. They learned innovation and resiliency.”
On the eve of the school shutdown order last March, Reykdal left his office to watch his daughter’s last middle school volleyball game. He savored the normalcy, knowing he’d have to stand behind Inslee the next day to deliver the news.
After Inslee shared his words, Reykdal stepped forward and told reporters about the volleyball game.
“Kids are feeling a little robbed right now, but we’re going to get back to that day,” he said.
He still believes that.