“What does the Seattle School Board do exactly?” asked two Seattle teacher friends of mine. “Who should we vote for?”
Welcome to what should be the least sexy race in this year's election mix but is shaking out to be one of the most hotly contested: Two contenders vying for an unpaid, part-time position representing Seattle Public Schools' District IV (Phinney Ridge, Ballard, Queen Anne, Magnolia) on the School Board.
Like school PTA boards, the Seattle School Board brings the community voice to the table on education matters. But the job is bigger than that. The ongoing duties of the school board include hiring and evaluating a superintendent, developing and balancing a budget, establishing policies for district governance, adopting instructional materials, maintaining fiduciary and legal responsibility for the District and representing the community.
This year and beyond, the School Board will also have to grapple with funding, capacity issues, implementation of a new strategic plan and district boundaries, as well as successful application of the state-mandated Common Core standards. There’s been high turnover in key district leadership roles and ongoing public mistrust in both the Board and the District.
Though the job has grass roots, it also requires the ability to see the forest and the trees.
On the face of it, District IV candidates Sue Peters and Suzanne Dale Estey, have much in common. Peters, a resident of Queen Anne, is 47. Estey, who lives in Magnolia, is 43. Both are white and married, with working husbands and school-aged children. Neither claims to be independently wealthy. If elected, both candidates and their husbands say they will have to juggle work, family and school board responsibilities. They are willing to do so because they believe in the importance of this mission.
But the similarities stop there.
In their campaign strategies and styles, fundraising and fundamental views on education, these candidates represent distinct camps.
Sue Peters, a former journalist and self-proclaimed school advocate, has been endorsed by anti-education-reform activist Diane Ravitch, currently on tour with her new book "Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools." Like Ravitch, Peters is an unabashed and unapologetic opponent of what she refers to as corporate education reform.
Dale Estey claims a less fixed position on education matters. A consultant with economic development and public affairs expertise who has worked on education policy at multiple levels of government, Estey has benefited from corporate support for her campaign.
This hotly contested race is, arguably, a microcosm of the current national debate on education, which pits education reformers — many corporate-backed — against those who worry about the impact of reforms on teachers and of poverty on students.
Though I had interviewed both candidates, read their campaign literature, heard them debate and watched them stump, I wanted to dig deeper into their education psyches, so I spent a weekend shadowing both.
Saturday, October 19: Sue Peters
She scares people, but when you meet her, it's hard to imagine why. Sue Peters has the funky, urbane look of the San Francisco resident she once was, and a smooth, melodious voice. She quotes Hemingway in an unpretentious way.
The event is the essence of grassroots politics, held downstairs at Wallingford’s Good Shepherd Center. Suzanne Dale Estey is there too, along with Seattle mayoral candidate Ed Murray, City Council member Richard Conlin and advocates for gun responsibility and other campaign issues. But my focus is on Sue Peters, who received the sole endorsement of the 43rd Precinct and a dual endorsement, with Dale Estey, from the 36th.
I recognize Peters’ campaign manager, Kathy Smith. We had both volunteered as tutors at our children’s middle school. Smith's activism started, she tells me, when she worked with disadvantaged students at the height of the recession. She saw Seattle Public Schools (SPS) cut funding for student support services, while increasing administrative staff.
“I think corporate interests have too much influence,” she says. “Teachers are overburdened and no one is coordinating the federal, state and district requirements placed on them.”
Why support Peters? I ask her.
“Sue is strong and courageous.”
“Is she open-minded? “ I ask.
“She is knowledgeable and strategic.”
Citing her past experience as a journalist, Peters likes to talk about “facts.” At the breakfast, someone asks about charter schools. “The facts don’t support them,” she says, referring to the efficacy of charter schools.
When I ask what she means by her frequently used term “corporate education reform,” Peters once again refers to the facts. “Many of these reforms just don't work,” says Peters who is critical of funders, such as the Gates Foundation, trying out new reforms, then pulling money out of unsuccessful projects, which leaves schools high and dry. She feels so strongly about this, she wrote a letter to Bill Gates.
“[Corporate investment] shouldn’t dictate policy and cut out parents and teachers," Peters tells me. "The money comes with strings. I don’t think the District properly analyzes corporate reforms before accepting them. Education reform should be a neutral term.”
Peters and her husband Gregg Williams, an analyst for Expedia, have a ninth-grader and a fourth-grader. Both are in the District’s Accelerated Progress Program (APP) program.
SPS’s APP community has been organized and outspoken, in part because advanced learning policy has been in disarray, and APP programs have been moved repeatedly. The growth in APP has led to capacity challenges. The current proposed changes to school enrollment boundaries significantly impact APP families.
If elected, would Peters be able to take off her APP hat to serve the interests of all 50,000 Seattle public school students?
She tells me she parts company with the APP community on certain issues, including the establishment of an APP-only school (Wilson-Pacific, current home to the American Indian Heritage program). “SPS has a history of zero-sum solutions, pitting one group of students against another,” she explains. “I am against this.”
SPS could not tell me how much the APP program has grown. On its website, SPS says it receives nearly 5,000 applications for advanced learning programs each year. To alleviate APP overcrowding, Peters favors strengthening other advanced learning programs, such as Spectrum, all over the city and increasing the number of high schools (currently three out of 12) that offer the rigorous International Baccalaureate diploma program.
Peters has challenged Dale Estey’s aggressive fundraising, and the fact that she has hired some paid campaign staff and longtime political strategist Christian Sinderman, once characterized as "the state's hottest political consultant."
“Why has so much money been poured into what is supposed to be a grassroots campaign?” wonders Peters. “Why are Suzanne’s advocates so committed to buying her race?
Maybe because the populist Peters scares people, I suggest.
Stalwartly against charter schools; critical of standardized tests; calls the implementation of the new Common Core State Standards an “unfunded mandate;” has an abrasive reputation.
“Why don't my critics take the time to meet me?” she retorts. “I’ve worked on two task forces and have received good endorsements from my fellow task force members. When you meet someone, it’s not abstract. You have to find a way to work together."
Peters insists that she can be open-minded. “My views are based on research and facts," she says. "They evolve.”
Sunday, October 20: Suzanne Dale Estey
I meet Suzanne Dale Estey and a group of volunteers at Grateful Bread Baking Company and Cafe. They are planning to go “doorbelling” in Seattle’s View Ridge neighborhood, not far from where Dale Estey grew up. She’s proud of her longstanding ties to Seattle — graduate of Seattle public schools, daughter of a Seattle schoolteacher and PTA leader, former student representative to the Seattle School Board.
As if on cue, a woman with a small child approaches Dale Estey in the cafe. “I don’t know if you remember me, but we went to high school together,” she says. “You have my vote and my parents’ vote, too.” Dale Estey makes the connection and then bends down to speak to the woman’s daughter, now attending the same elementary school Dale Estey once had.
Doorbelling, says Dale Estey, is one of her favorite campaigning methods. “Data shows that if someone looks you in the eye, they are much more likely to vote for you,” she tells her volunteers during the pre-doorbelling strategy session.
With printouts from the “Voter Builder” database spread out on the table before them, Dale Estey reviews the column that shows each resident’s voter history. The plan for this non-partisan race is to target the likeliest voters; those who have voted in the last four elections. Northeast Seattle has the highest voter turnout in the city. “1,000 voters will be touched today,” Dale Estey says. “I’m all about efficiency.”
If Peters is urbane, Dale Estey, in running shoes and a warm-up jacket in (her alma mater) Roosevelt High School green, is Senator Patty Murray in her “mom in tennis shoes” phase.
A campaign workhorse, Dale Estey, often accompanied by her husband Mike Estey, a manager with the Seattle Department of Transportation, and their two young sons, is everywhere. This morning she was supposed to go for a run with campaign supporters, then spend the day ringing doorbells, before heading out to an evening fundraiser. She skipped the run only because “I had to let go of something, and the second shower was it.”
Dale Estey’s website is much like the careful, low-key candidate herself. Her stances are measured and non-controversial. She wants academic excellence for all, adequate school funding, fiscal responsibility and strong community partnerships. She wants to keep the focus on what’s best for kids.
In person, she breaks loose a little when describing the differences between herself and her opponent. First and foremost, she’s proud of her Seattle roots. “I know this community,” she says, as we roam the manicured neighborhood of Halloween-decorated houses. Not many people are home, making me wonder whether 1,000 voters will indeed be touched today.
“Hi, I’m Suzanne,” Dale Estey offers, whenever someone answers the door. They seem genuinely glad to see her. They look her in the eye.
“I’m collaborative, not divisive,” Dale Estey says archly. “That’s an issue in this race. I’ve formed relationships with an array of people. I understand advocacy. I will add value to the School Board.”
She claims a stronger commitment to academic rigor than Peters: “I’m a strong supporter of the Common Core standards. Sue originally went on record [with The Stranger] opposing them. Now, she’s backing away from that position.” She wants to raise the quality of schools in every neighborhood, noting "there are no Level 5 [highest ranked] schools in Southeast Seattle."
Dale Estey explains the unprecedented amount of campaign money she has raised by saying that “there are lots of people who are fed up with the status quo and see me as a vehicle for change. I’m not going to argue with that passion.” But she denies that she is in the pocket of her corporate backers, citing her opposition to charter schools, which many of them support.
“We need more funding for schools, so I oppose diverting money away towards charters," she says. "However, I support amping up the innovations currently underway in our schools.”
Seattle Pacific University professor Thomas Alsbury, who has conducted extensive research on school boards, superintendents, school-district governance and reform, says Dale Estey’s fundraising is not cause for alarm. “The research indicates that most board members receive meager funding, mostly from friends," he explains. "Races in urban areas are more influenced by larger sums. The primary question comes from what influence the funding may purchase. The research shows that in urban centers, school board members are primarily influenced by the superintendent, the public (their constituency), and the teacher unions; not individual campaign contributors or special interest entities.”
Dale Estey also defends her decision to hire campaign workers and a consultant. “This is a city-wide race. I need to communicate with 230,000 voters. I’m not an expert, but there are people who are.”
If elected, she would follow a similar strategy: relying on the expertise of others. But she’s quick to add that she has her own opinions and does not blindly follow. “I like to listen to a diverse array of voices," she says. "But I tend to listen more to people who focus on solutions."
What about the aggressive campaign tactics some of her supporters have used, such as filing a public records request for emails that Peters sent to SPS staff? “I’m humbled by their enthusiasm," says Dale Estey, "but disappointed by their tactics.”
Dale Estey prefers to take a “macro” perspective on issues, a welcome relief to those who feel that some current and past school board members have been guilty of micromanaging SPS. Peters says the role of the school board is to diligently represent the community, provide oversight of the superintendent, maintaining respect for him and helping him to succeed. She cites the need to find the balance between diligence and respect and to make decisions based on facts.
In the end, the District IV scvhool board race comes down to a choice between a grassroots activist with passion and insider knowledge and a politically savvy wonk, who takes a broad-brush approach to the issues, but listens to constituents and experts.
Photos of Sue Peters and Suzanne Dale Estey by Alison Krupnick.
Alison Krupnick, longtime Crosscut contributor, is the Education Editor for ParentMap and the author of the book Ruminations from the Minivan, musings from a world grown large, then small and the blog Slice of Mid-Life. You can read her coverage of the latest education news, trends and innovations on ParentMap's education page.