Rep. Chris Reykdal’s supporters say his experience in Olympia is what students need in a state superintendent as the Legislature struggles with how to boost education spending.
Every day, State Rep. Chris Reykdal says, he sees the effects of an underfunded school system. He sees it when he buys his daughter school supplies that used to be provided by the school, for example, and when his son needed $12 for an activity fee.
The fact that Reykdal has school-age children gives him a different perspective in the race for state superintendent of public instruction. If elected, he would be the first state superintendent in 30 years to have children in school while in office.
“(The effects are) so fresh, and very real for me,” said Reykdal, a Democrat who represents Tumwater. “You’re buying supplies, or paying for fees for field trips, and you realize for some families, the barriers can be huge.”
Reykdal says he understands those barriers. In campaign forums and debates, he talks about his upbringing in Snohomish, as the youngest of eight with parents who had an eighth-grade education. He grew up in houses with exposed Sheetrock and wore hand-me-down clothes — and wouldn’t have been able to afford new supplies or extra school fees if they were required when he was in school. And while conversations about the achievement gaps often focus on racial and ethnic groups, he says it’s also about poverty.
Those who back Reykdal’s opponent, Erin Jones, call her the candidate for change, a career teacher comfortable with working with a wide range of people to address inequity. If she wins, she would be the first black woman elected to statewide office.
Her outsider status, her supporters say, is a plus, at a time when lawmakers have moved so slowly on raising education spending that they are under a contempt order from the state Supreme Court, which ruled in 2012 that the state is violating the state constitution by underfunding public schools.
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But Reykdal’s supporters say his experience in Olympia, combined with his upbringing and time as an educator, is what the state’s students need as the Legislature approaches the 2018 deadline for complying with the McCleary decision. By then, lawmakers need to find millions, and possibly billions, more dollars for public education.
Reykdal, 44, has served in the House of Representatives since 2011 and was a fiscal analyst for the state transportation committee for three years. He now is an associate director for the state Board for Community and Technical Colleges.
And Reykdal is endorsed by departing State Superintendent Randy Dorn, who has been a big critic of the Legislature when it comes to McCleary. (Dorn decided against seeking re-election.)
Jones would have a unique perspective, Dorn said, but she doesn’t have the financial or political experience that Reykdal has. And he credits Reykdal for being one of the lawmakers trying to move faster.
“There are people who are trying to put the energy into making it happen,” he said. “I would put Chris into that category.”
Reykdal is also endorsed by former State Superintendent Terry Bergeson, former governors Chris Gregoire and Mike Lowry, and the Washington Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. His campaign has garnered support from nearly 100 current and former elected officials.
In total, the two candidates have received more than 500 endorsements, including a handful of dual endorsements. For example, the Public School Employees of Washington, which represents 29,000 school district employees, is backing both candidates. The group’s legislative council “felt that both were advocates for classified school employees,” communications coordinator Travis Tingvall said.
As of the first week of October, Reykdal had raised $205,900, while Jones had $179,700. Both say their campaigns are grass roots, but each has received money from big names like Microsoft (Reykdal) and Mariners co-owner Christopher Larson (Jones).
“The good news is that there are two good, solid people going forward,” Dorn said.
Reykdal’s experience is similar to Dorn’s — both have worked as lawmakers and educators. But Reykdal said he wouldn’t just continue Dorn’s policies and priorities, and wouldn’t be quite as vocal a critic.
“There’s a time for that pressure,” Reykdal said. “Closer to deadline, you need less pressure and more partnership. The next person really has to work with them (the Legislature).”
Reykdal also says he wouldn’t have filed a lawsuit against school districts over school funding, as Dorn did in July. Dorn sued the state of Washington and seven school districts — which he said he used as examples — alleging that they illegally rely on local property-tax levies to fund basic education.
At the time, Reykdal asked educators their views on the lawsuit, said Phyllis Campano, president of the Seattle teachers union. Campano said she was impressed that he reached out to teachers.
If elected, Reykdal says his first act would be to submit a bipartisan plan to fully fund basic education. The plan would, as required, have the state paying for basic education, including teacher compensation, with districts still able to raise money for extras through local levies. It would also outline how to generate more revenue through a capital-gains tax.
“It’s bipartisan because the Republicans want to address levies, and the Democrats want a progressive tax code,” he said.
To those who criticize the Legislature for lack of progress on school funding, Reykdal points to its success in funding all-day kindergarten, smaller class sizes and supplies. That has been the state’s stance, too, but it hasn’t satisfied the plaintiffs in the case — or the state Supreme Court.
Earlier this month the court decided to maintain its contempt order against the state, and $100,000-a-day fines. But Reykdal said it’s important to wait until the 2018 deadline to account for any changes in the state’s finances.
“I know folks are frustrated, but I say, ‘How many people shop for Christmas three years ago?’?” he said.
He’s also been criticized for sponsoring legislation in 2015 that expanded the state’s dual-credit program, which allows high-school students to earn both high- school and college credits in the same course, at the same time. The program is now supervised by his wife. Jones’ campaign sent an email Monday alleging a conflict of interest.
But Reykdal said his wife, Kim, was a counselor at Olympia High School when the legislation passed, and the job wasn’t on their radar until a few months ago. She decided to focus on policy at the state level, he said, after she was named a finalist for the national 2016 School Counselor of the Year award.
Like Jones, he also says he is focused on equity in education, and would like the state superintendent’s office to serve as a research center that analyzes attendance, test scores and discipline rates by different subgroups. Using that research would then help the office see which communities need additional resources, he said.
He cites school districts’ dependence on local levies as one of the most significant reasons why the achievement gap exists. The districts that benefit are typically in wealthier communities, and for communities that are already struggling, the reliance on levies is a “double whammy,” he said.
During debates, Jones has emphasized her 20-year-plus experience in the classroom. But Reykdal, too, was a teacher, for three years. As a history and government teacher and soccer coach at Mark Morris High School in Longview, he was a “kid magnet,” said Gary Kipp, who hired him in the mid 1990s.
Kipp, now the executive director of the Association of Washington School Principals, said he knew that Reykdal “could make a bigger impact on a bigger stage.”
For his part, Reykdal says the issues that the superintendent needs to address — education, funding, politics — all fall within his expertise.
“I’ve seen all of these pieces of the puzzle,” he said. “I’m the one who can put them all together.”