A widely celebrated teacher wants to lead Washington’s public-education department, and despite a lack of political experience she has collected wide-ranging support. If elected, Erin Jones would be the first black woman to win statewide office.
For a candidate with no track record in elected office, Erin Jones has pieced together an unusual coalition of support, a Venn diagram that mixes progressives with right-wingers, labor groups and business leaders. All of them hoping the charismatic former teacher can bring something new to Olympia.
“In education, we’re not looking at conservative versus liberal,” said Jami Lund, a former policy analyst for Washington House Republicans, longtime critic of public-sector unions and current education adviser at the Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank. “What we’re looking at is change versus status quo, and Erin Jones, in my view, is Team Change.”
Lund’s endorsement — which he emphasized as a personal preference, separate from his work with the foundation — is inspired by Jones’ outsider status. Despite her long history as an educator working in districts across the state, Jones, 45, did not win support from the state’s largest teacher union, nor from the lengthy list of politicians who back her opponent, veteran legislator Chris Reykdal.
The establishment stronghold is also what Sharonne Navas wants changed. As executive director of the nonprofit Equity in Education Coalition, Navas can count on one hand the places where her viewpoints align with Lund’s. Hope that Jones will become Washington’s education chief is among them.
“That office needs someone who understands people on the ground, including students of color, parents of color, teachers and administrators,” Navas said. “It actually makes me feel better that Erin works with both conservatives and progressives.”
Those who support Jones say they are impressed by her years in the classroom, her time in administrative posts at the state Office of Superintendent for Public Instruction (OSPI) and her unconventional story, one that suggests a lifetime of successfully navigating between disparate worlds.
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She is a black woman who has lived in some of the toughest parts of Tacoma, yet was educated alongside elites at the American School of The Hague. Her biological parents gave her up for adoption as an infant, and Jones was raised by two white educators from Minnesota.
They moved to the Netherlands to teach at The Hague when Jones was 6. There, she sat alongside the children of diplomats and returned to the United States to study at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, imagining that she’d become a lawyer for the United Nations.
By then, the college freshman stood 6 feet tall, spoke four languages and felt immediately ostracized.
“We need 10 of you — that’s why you’re here,” she recalled one schoolmate sneering, in reference to racial quotas. Jones never forgot that wound.
It flared again on a basketball court in Philadelphia, where she played pickup ball with a series of young black men and realized not one of them could read. That was, Jones says, the day she changed career paths.
She speaks passionately about shrinking the gap in academic outcomes between students of different races, and has worked as equity and achievement director in the Federal Way Public Schools.
“She really laid some of the groundwork in our district for how we have conversations around race and breaking down barriers,” said Geoffrey McAnalloy, president of the Federal Way school board. “These are hard conversations, and she was a voice that pressed that issue when not many wanted to hear it.”
She also shows little hesitation to criticize current education leaders, including her former boss at OSPI, Randy Dorn.
“Much of Randy’s work is done on golf courses” or in the Legislature, Jones said in an interview. “I can’t tell you how many teachers don’t even know what he looks like. Randy Dorn is just talking to legislators. But the answers to problems in public education are not in Olympia.”
That assertion will be tested next year, as lawmakers face a deadline to answer a court ruling that found Washington drastically underfunds its public schools.
Many see this impending battle as Chris Reykdal’s ace. He has worked in Olympia for more than 15 years and knows all the players. It also defines the superintendent’s race itself — a contest between a seasoned lawmaker with support from most of those working at OSPI, versus a career educator hailed by the White House as a Champion for Change.
“I don’t think it’s necessary to have spent time under the dome,” said Susan Hutchison, chairwoman of the state Republican Party, who is supporting Jones. “That office yearns for somebody new. We’re talking about leadership to bring people together and take initiative.”
With Lund and Hutchison in her corner, Jones has found herself painted as a right-winger, despite a career spent advocating for students of color, immigrants and the otherwise marginalized.
In an email to his supporters, Reykdal attacked her as the beneficiary of “millionaire corporate-style reformers,” an apparent reference to campaign contributions Jones received from former Starbucks President Howard Behar, Seattle Mariners co-President Chris Larson and organizations such as Teach for America and the League of Education Voters, which have supported charter schools.
Jones waves off the broad-brush strokes. As of early October, she had raised $179,800, most of it in individual donations of a few hundred dollars. (Behar kicked in $3,000, Larson $2,000.)
The interest from fiscal conservatives, she believes, stems from her position on school finances — specifically, that money alone will not solve Washington’s education challenges — and on the teachers union.
“The WEA is a political organization,” Jones said. “Its job is to make sure people are getting paid, not on teaching and learning.”
Reykdal, too, has big-money donors. His $205,900 includes the beer-and-wine lobby, Weyerhaeuser and Rayonier timber companies, Microsoft and the Sabey Corp.
It surprised many of Jones’ teaching colleagues that her greatest campaign misstep surfaced in the arena of social policy. In June, she said it was inappropriate to teach transgenderism to elementary students. The blowback was fierce. Jones weathered a week of attack from LGBTQ advocates, including The Stranger alternative weekly, which withdrew its support for her candidacy.
Jones, who has three children, says her written comments were taken out of context. But she also says her views have shifted.
After her remarks went viral, she phoned Anne Hawkins, a longtime friend and openly gay teacher raising an interracial son in Tacoma.
They spoke for nearly an hour.
“It was a tough conversation,” Hawkins recalled. “But Erin was brave enough to ask and strong enough to listen to an opinion that until that point was unheard-of for her. She just kept asking, ‘OK, tell me more.’?”
To be shamed so publicly was painful, Jones said. “But if that’s what’s driven me to better support a community that I didn’t know how to support, it was absolutely worth it.”
Such person-to-person interactions are her forte. In early September, Jones walked into the PAX gaming conference in Seattle without entourage or managers, to speak on a panel about encouraging more play in learning.
“Testing is not teaching,” she said to resounding applause from a room packed with educators. “One of the reasons I decided to run for OSPI is we’ve spent so much time talking about testing and not enough on teaching and learning.“
That position aligns closely with the Washington Education Association. Yet the teachers union endorsed Jones’ opponent.
“It wasn’t that anything was wrong with her,” said Pam Kruse, who represents the union in Pierce County. “It’s that Chris was better. He’s been there with us, as our advocate, talking about funding for years. With his experience in the legislative branch to the administrative, it will be the smoothest transition we’ve ever seen.”
Critics note Jones’ history of bouncing quickly from job to job, her relentless campaigning while an administrator with Tacoma public schools (she has since resigned her position), and her failure to vote in at least four school-related elections in her home district of North Thurston.
Those missed votes were irresponsible, she acknowledges, but they came from her intense focus on being in schools, hour after hour, educating kids. For those who know Jones, the explanation fits.
“Erin Jones is on a long-term mission to impact student learning, and she is coming to this from an authentic place,” said Stephanie Jones, executive director of Community and Parents for Public Schools. “This is not the next step in a political career.”