Update: Since this story published, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal failed to prove as “demonstrably false” challenger Maia Espinoza’s statement in the voter guide.
At a time of profound upheaval for the state’s 1.1 million students, the biggest flashpoint in the race between state schools chief Chris Reykdal and his reelection challenger Maia Espinoza boils down to a single sentence in the voter guide: The incumbent championed a sex education “policy that teaches sexual positions to fourth graders.”
The statement is inaccurate. The law requires school districts to adopt a sex education curriculum of their choice that meets state standards. The standards suggest that fourth graders learn about puberty, reproduction, healthy relationships and communicable diseases. Espinoza’s voter guide statement is not referring to the law itself, but a book listed in a handout for parents that could be used for further reading. The handout accompanies one curriculum the state considers compliant with standards.
But the legal battle over those words, which the state Supreme Court ruled could remain in the voter guide because it was not defamatory, has turned the race into somewhat of a proxy war over a ballot measure, Referendum 90, that Espinoza helped land on the ballot this November.
Pushback to the law helped make the race for this nonpartisan office one of the most ideological in recent memory, observers say, with each campaign falling more clearly along political party lines.
Reykdal, a former Democratic legislator, is running on his optimism and faith in the system’s ability to adapt through policy reform, promising more support for students affected by access issues and projecting confidence that schools will weather the pandemic. As of Oct. 13, he had outraised Espinoza by $56,000, and has the endorsement of the statewide teachers union, a key financial contributor to Democrats.
Espinoza, a policy advocate and Republican activist, built her campaign on fervent opposition to a 2020 state legislative law, which Reykdal supported, that requires school districts to adopt sex education curricula. She also has appealed to parents’ frustration about school closures during the pandemic, calling it an “assault on working families,” and has voiced support for school voucher programs. Although she has raised less, she spent $100,000 more than Reykdal as of Oct. 13, and has endorsements from several Republican lawmakers.
As head of the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), the schools chief leads the state agency tasked with supervising the financial and academic welfare of 300 school districts, and lobbying the Legislature for funding and fixes.
Reykdal, 48, from Tumwater, Thurston County, has worked for decades in the public sector as a state legislator, school board member and budget director for the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. He started his career teaching high school history, and has children in the Tumwater School District.
Espinoza, 31, has never held elected office nor worked in a public school. She taught music at a private Catholic school in Lacey, Thurston County, and is currently executive director for the Center for Latino Leadership, which she says promotes civic engagement among Latinos. In 2018, she ran an unsuccessful campaign as a Republican for the 28th Legislative District.
She has participated in debates, but after the primary neither she nor her campaign manager responded to multiple requests from The Seattle Times for an interview. An Associated Press story last month found she had misrepresented her educational credentials and the 501(c)3 status of the nonprofit she runs.
“She’ll be good at pushing back”
Espinoza bills herself as a parent advocate. According to her website and statements in forums, her priorities include school reopenings, supporting life skills for students such as understanding the difference between “fact and opinion,” and improving the nutritional value of school lunches.
“Women and communities of color are paying the highest price during the pandemic,” Espinoza said in an Oct. 12 candidate forum on TVW. “The first thing I will do is work with local school districts on the ground that are ready to reopen.”
Raised in a military family, Espinoza attended more than a dozen public schools while growing up, according to her campaign website. She has two kids in the Clover Park School District, and recently gave birth to a third child.
She says she has pushed for more equitable distribution of funding for migrant students, and worked on advocacy for a 2019 law aimed at recruiting more bilingual teachers. She has served on state government task forces, and has volunteered at schools and youth organizations.
Her campaign has resonated with voters like Colleen Wise, president of the East Pierce Republican Women’s Club, who donated to Espinoza’s campaign. “She is a female candidate who (agrees with our views) of the sex ed program … We think she’ll be good at pushing back,” Wise said.
Her lack of experience in elected office “is certainly a weakness,” said Paul Wagemann, a member of the Clover Park School District Board who endorsed Espinoza. “But I think some fresh blood, some new eyes would be good for the job.”
State Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, said he’s disappointed with Reykdal for pushing for more funding but not focusing on tracking student outcomes. He said Espinoza pitched him on her vision for schools a few times. He came away thinking she would focus on results for students.
When asked whether he thinks Espinoza’s voter guide statement accurately represented the sex education bill, which he voted against, Stokesbary said he had complicated feelings about the issue, adding that “the other side” also runs with misleading statements.
“I absolutely don’t believe that there’s any justification for that [voter guide statement],” said Democratic state Sen. Lisa Wellman, who chairs the Senate education committee and endorsed Reykdal. “If you’re somebody who hasn’t had the opportunity to run this type of organization, with all its bells and whistles, and now you’re trying to come in during a pandemic? Yeah [I could see] that you would probably go with whatever you could go with and something people are making a loud noise about.”
“He knows where all the problems are”
Reykdal’s vision for schools builds on what he terms as the “momentum” over the past four years: more funding for construction projects and early learning, increasing the number of students earning college credit in high school and addressing racial inequities such as disproportionate suspensions and expulsions for students of color.
“We’ve already changed the game, and we still have work to do,” said Reykdal. “This place had spent [decades] not even looking at discipline, and within two years, we rewrote the rules.”
During the pandemic, he secured $8.8 million from the state’s share of the CARES Act stimulus package to help connect more students to free internet access.
The pandemic thrust Reykdal into an unusually visible role as a key consultant on the reopening of the economy.
He’s drawn praise from some superintendents, educators, Gov. Jay Inslee and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle for his policy chops and for being accessible. He’s also credited with beefing up the agency’s data collection.
Krestin Bahr, the superintendent of the Eatonville School District, said OSPI provided her with the support she needed to reopen school buildings in her district.
“Chris has been hands-on, very personable, and very willing to be a clear voice at a time of uncertainty,” she said.
He gets mixed reviews for his biggest initiatives.
“He knows where all the problems are,” said Sharonne Navas, executive director of the Equity in Education Coalition, which endorsed Reykdal. “But he has trouble getting to the root of them … There wasn’t a lot of guidance at the beginning of the pandemic guidance around special education or around English learners.”
In August, a group of parents of students with disabilities filed suit to overturn OSPI emergency rules that give schools some leeway in how they define an hour of instruction. The families argue this allows districts to give students with disabilities, already struggling with the realities of remote learning, even less access to services.
“There should’ve been a lot more outreach to the parent community a lot sooner … that was an enormous disappointment,” said Kathy George, the attorney representing the families.
Reykdal said he did not want to comment on that case specifically, citing that it was active litigation, but said that emergency rules were necessary given building closures.
Since Reykdal took office, the state education department has been better at collecting data on isolations and restraints of children, and pushed successfully for more funding, George said. But in many cases, it has not held districts to account for the loss of services during the pandemic, she said.
Some felt the rewriting of the state’s graduation standards, one of Reykdal’s proudest accomplishments, needed more teeth. The rewrite gave students alternative pathways to meeting graduation standards rather than passing a state test, such as obtaining a certain score on the ACT or SAT, completing career and technical education courses or passing a military aptitude test.
Steve Smith, executive director of the Black Education Strategy Roundtable, said the alternative pathways “were not always academically rigorous, and not equal to the other pathways, and there were some that were woefully short at the measure.”
Navas said she appreciated the changes to the rules. But with so many kids in crisis, she said, the agency should be thinking much bigger.
“When you’re on the Titanic, you don’t figure out what the next meal should be.”