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The race to manage Washington’s budget mess

Sitting in a bright, empty doughnut shop along Seattle’s Third Avenue, Erin Jones does something politicians normally don’t: She admits she was wrong.

Then she does it again. By the end of a long conversation one blustery afternoon, Jones has admitted to changing her stance on two significant issues: first on the issue of an income tax, which she advocated for at the beginning of her campaign, and later over remarks she made this summer about sex education curriculum and LGBT students.

The remarks about sexuality cost her the election endorsements of The Stranger and advocacy group Equal Rights Washington, and on the same blustery afternoon, Jones spoke with startling candor about how her views have changed since.

 

Jones is fighting state Rep. Chris Reykdal in the race for state superintendent of public instruction, a post that’s usually far from the minds of voters. Whoever holds the job tends to spend more time neck-deep in the work of tracking schools’ performance and writing regulations for schools than in front of cameras.

Next year, though, education will be front-and-center in Olympia like never before, as legislators try yet again to solve the state’s long-running McCleary crisis. That crisis, which began in 2012 with a ruling in a suit brought by plaintiffs named McCleary, saw the state Supreme Court rule that the Legislature must pay the core costs of operating schools. But with individual school districts having gradually shifted to paying many of their own costs using property tax levies, the mandate to abruptly shift back to full state funding comes with a price tag north of $3 billion. And the court has ordered a full fix this coming year.

As schools’ highest official advocate in Olympia, whoever holds the post is granted a unique moral high ground, from which they can badger and cajole lawmakers – or publicly shame them – in unparalleled fashion. In the face of the McCleary crisis, that ability translates directly to the race: If they’re able use their bully pulpit to weigh in on the solution, the next superintendent will almost inevitably have an impact on the shape of Washington’s schools that lasts well beyond their four-year term.

 

With a history rooted far from the halls of power in Olympia, Jones is an inevitable attraction for post-Sanders liberals longing for an outsider candidate. Not only would she be the first African-American woman to hold statewide office, but her résumé reads like a primer on social justice in education, with posts ranging from teaching other teachers how to navigate topics like race, ethnicity and poverty, to a stint heading work on equity laws at the state level.

But the other candidate for the office, Reykdal, while certainly a political insider, is no Boss Hog (the corrupt sheriff in The Dukes of Hazzard). Instead, he’s a widely vouched-for budget-and-efficiency wonk with five years in the House of Representatives, who has won the endorsements of Olympia veterans from former Gov. Christine Gregoire to current Superintendent Randy Dorn.

Reykdal also has the résumé to back up his reputation. After starting as a teacher, like Jones, he spent eight years overseeing, among other things, budget issues and the distribution of state funds to community colleges around the state. When he joined the House as a Democrat in 2011, Reykdal gained seats on the House Education, Education Appropriations, and Labor and Workforce Development committees. Those appointments square solidly with where he claims his focus would lie as superintendent: on helping legislators solve the McCleary crisis, simplifying testing, and bringing back career and technical education.

For his part, Dorn describes the two candidates as close in their abilities, with Reykdal winning his endorsement by an inch, not a mile.

“I know both people pretty well,“ said Dorn, under whom Jones worked as one of 12 assistant superintendents. But Dorn, himself a former legislator, said Reykdal’s experience in the Legislature could be critical to getting lawmakers to move this year on funding.

“I give Erin that she may be able to get more people involved,” Dorn said. But, he added, “It’s gotta be someone that understands the budget. … [Chris] will be able to go in and talk to the Andy Hills of the world and he will talk on their level.” Andy Hill, a Republican state senator from the Eastside is regarded as one of the most influential figures on the Republican side of state budget negotiations.

But in almost the same breath, Dorn qualifies his endorsement: From her time as an assistant superintendent, Jones understands the office, and would be able to do the job of the executive, he says, contradicting assertions from Reykdal that Jones lacks experience. “Whoever gets elected will be a solid, good person,” Dorn said.

 

In the minds of some voters, though, the question of Jones’ deeper beliefs may overshadow specific questions about policy. In a lengthy interview, Jones spoke in candid terms about a controversy that erupted around remarks she made to a conservative blog this summer, and her views on LGBTQ issues in general.

Calling the topic “a blind spot” she has been working to fill in, Jones combined a frank admission that she personally wonders about the roots of sexual orientation with an insistence that her politics — and her faith — dictate supporting every student.

“I don’t know that I could ever understand it,” Jones said of the experience of being gay, lesbian or transgender, likening the prospect to a white person understanding the experience of being black. “What I do believe is, for the most part, that the LGBTQ community doesn’t have a choice. I do believe for the most part it’s biological.”Later, Jones reiterated her uncertainty: “I don’t believe it’s ever a choice,” she said. “Now is it biology, that’s my question — is it always biology?”

Jones, a practicing Christian, said she thinks some people equate her faith with the intolerance associated with the stance of many Christian organizations on gay marriage and abortion. But, she added, “The most important thing about my faith is loving all people unconditionally. That’s how I’ve tried to live my life as an educator.”

Jones’ controversy began in July, when she fielded a question from a conservative blog about new teaching guidelines that include basic discussions of gender for kindergarten students. In response, Jones wrote that she didn’t want young children to feel pressure to “choose an orientation.”

Jones also didn’t object to the blog’s phrasing of the question, which asked if kindergartners “should be taught transgenderism” — a term used in some right-wing circles.

Reykdal’s response to the same question from the same blog was tersely corrective: “The standards,” Reykdal wrote, “do not promote cross-dressing and other fabrications of the extreme right. They teach gender identity and self awareness. These are good things not to be vilified.”

In August, The Stranger, Seattle’s progressive weekly, discovered her remarks and rescinded its endorsement of Jones. Asked about her religious belief, Jones hedged, with the Stranger reporting that she “declined to answer directly when asked if being gay is a sin.”

Jones replied with an open letter, apologizing for “using overly equivocal wording,” and asserting that she has never believed sexual orientation was a choice. But, while she later edited the letter to include a statement that she did not believe being gay was a sin, early versions posted on Facebook stopped notably short of making the distinction.

“I didn’t take the time to completely read the standards,” Jones said, referring to the teaching guidelines that were the subject of the blog’s original question. “I responded hastily to it. … I completely own that.”

“It was publicly humiliating,” Jones added. “But at the same time it has been an incredible opportunity to push me into a community, to learn. …  What are the places where I can advocate for young people, what are the policy pieces that we should be considering, what are the best practices in schools that we can consider, beyond just bathrooms?”

 

Setting aside the controversy around Jones’ remarks, one of the main areas where the two candidates differ is in their approach to that very body on which so much hinges this year: the Legislature.

Dorn this year effectively threw in the towel on trying to work with lawmakers, filing a lawsuit designed to force the Legislature to choose between funding schools and shuttering classrooms as soon as the fall of 2017.

Both Reykdal and Jones say they would do what they could to stop the suit, or at least halt work on it, and instead use their own strategies to try to force the Legislature to act.

For her part, Jones proposes a circuitous, populist approach — make it a priority for the state agency to educate families not only about how to get involved in their own schools, but also about the stakes of legislative inaction, in the hope that they would then apply pressure to their own lawmakers.

Asked if she saw that strategy as being able to create enough pressure on lawmakers to actually push them toward a solution, Jones said, “I guess we’ll see.”

Reykdal, by comparison, takes an approach more obviously rooted in data, and a belief that the legislators will come around on their own, given just a little more time

“I don’t think it instantly makes people snap to attention,” Reykdal said of providing statistics to the Legislature, “but I have a lot of faith that there are rational actors … whose voices get empowered when they can point to powerful research and powerful results.”

Asked if that doesn’t fly in the face of recent experience with the Legislature as a decision-making body when it comes to budgets — in 2014 they went into quadruple overtime trying to make one — Reykdal gave his own wait-and-see answer: The superintendent doesn’t get to write the budget, Reykdal said.

 

While the plight of Washington schools is undeniably difficult, in a few years McCleary will likely have been either solved by the Legislature or by the court, but the superintendent’s work won’t be over. Instead, the superintendent will be faced with ferreting out the solutions to problems that plagued Washington’s schools long before talk of McCleary, and will plague it long after those issues are put to rest — among them, the persistent obstacles facing minority students across the state.

A good superintendent could use the time to make meaningful reform for the state’s students. A bad one could spend the rest of their term mostly riding the collective sigh of relief the entire state will breathe when the mess is over. Along with advocating in the state Capitol, the question Washingtonians face is who they think will do the best at the rest of the job — the efficiency crusader or the social justice warrior.

As shocking as some of Jones’ remarks are — the biological basis of sexual orientation has been widely accepted for at least a decade — the combination of her contrition and her relative political inexperience would seem to also point to a question of whether her mistake might have been just that. There’s also her work close to the center of the largest statewide educational equity initiative in years to consider. Leading up to 2015’s omnibus Opportunity Gap legislation, aimed at reducing the disparate outcomes that plague minority students, Jones headed the staff team that worked with community leaders to write the bill, and later headed up state equity programs under Dorn.

It’s also impossible to deny that out of 15 cabinet-level positions, the state superintendent’s office in its current makeup has only three women and one person of color. In addition to a focus on equity, Jones can credibly claim to bring lived experience straddling exactly the gap that the state is trying to close.

What voters will have to decide for themselves is whether Jones’ willingness to change course — and own up to it — is itself a sign of naive indecisiveness or principled integrity. Even if they lean toward the latter, it’s an open question whether that will put her ahead of a well-qualified opponent with a knack for budgeting in a year sure to be all about exactly that.

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