Schools Chiefs Scrap for Ballot Spotlight
Heated National Election, Other Statewide Contests Vie for Voters' Attention
The two candidates in the upcoming election for Washington state’s superintendent of schools are battling over education issues that should draw plenty of public interest: the federal No Child Left Behind law, student achievement, testing, school funding, and dropout rates.
But observers doubt that the three-term incumbent, Terry Bergeson, and her opponent, union official Randy Dorn, are making much of a dent on the electorate amid a high-megawatt presidential campaign and a pitched battle for governor.
“The other races are sucking the air out of the room,” David Griffith, a spokesman for the National Association of State Boards of Education, or NASBE, said of the Bergeson-Dorn contest.
And he said a similar dynamic is affecting the four other state superintendencies up for grabs this year, including the bid by North Dakota’s Wayne G. Sanstead—the country’s longest-running state schools superintendent—for a seventh term.
Despite heightened interest in presidential politics this election year, “down ballot” races such as the state chiefs’ contests in Indiana, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, and Washington still won’t get much attention, said Brenda L. Welburn, the executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based NASBE.
“People don’t know what the state board or state chief is, and what they do and what they mean,” she said. Ms. Welburn noted that states often report vote totals for president and governor that are far higher than for the less well-known offices.
In addition to the state superintedencies up for election this year, voters in 11 states will pick members for their state boards of education. In all, 56 state school board seats are up.
Shift on NCLB
This year, some education analysts had expected that controversies over the NCLB law, which many educators and member of the public see as overprescriptive and underfunded, and the role of education in improving U.S. economic competitiveness would raise the profile of races for state school board and superintendent.
In Washington state, however, the campaign for schools chief has been overshadowed by the dramatic governor’s race, a rematch of the 2004 contest that Democrat Christine Gregoire won against Republican Dino Rossi by just 133 votes.
Ms. Bergeson, who was first elected in 1996, sought to break through over the summer by shifting her stance on the NCLB law. She had defended the measure as a worthy program during her 2004 victory over Judith Billings, a former state schools chief.
In a statement last month, Ms. Bergeson declared that the federal law was not working.
“It is the great promise behind NCLB that makes its failure to accomplish its goals, seven years later, so disheartening,” she said. “Those failures are due to serious flaws in its accountability system, assessment requirements, and teacher-quality provisions,” as well as inadequate flexibility and financial support for states and school districts.
In an interview, Ms. Bergeson said she wants to use her next term as a “bully pulpit” to help fix the federal law, which is overdue for reauthorization by Congress.
Her challenger, meanwhile, contends that Ms. Bergeson has proved ineffective as a leader where it counts most—in Washington state.
Mr. Dorn, a former state lawmaker, said in an interview that Ms. Bergeson has failed to pry adequate money for schools from the legislature, and said that he has the influence in the Statehouse to do better.
Mr. Dorn was a seven-year member of the state House of Representatives. He served on the appropriations committee and chaired the education committee when it crafted the state’s education reform law in 1993.
A former teacher and school principal, he is now the executive director of Public School Employees of Washington, which represents about 26,000 school service workers. The union does not include teachers or administrators.
Mr. Dorn qualified for the Nov. 4 ballot by finishing second to Ms. Bergeson in the state’s nonpartisan “top-two” primary in August.
He said the state erred by making its testing program, the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, or WASL, a high-stakes test. He said that has caused schools to narrow the curriculum and focus too much of their resources on testing, a situation that has resulted in “teacher fatigue” that is driving teachers out of their profession, he argues.
Mr. Dorn is calling for replacement of the WASL with new “diagnostic” tests that are conducted on computer so scores can be returned quickly to teachers, who then can use them to adapt instruction.
He also blames Ms. Bergeson for the state’s math curriculum, developed on her watch. Test scores have been disappointing, and the legislature last year removed a math assessment from the lists of tests that high school students must pass to graduate. Writing and reading remain on that list.
Ms. Bergeson defends her record, noting that students have done well on the reading and writing portions of the WASL. She said the state developed its math standards with help from national experts, who gave the curriculum a “better balance” and put it ahead of the rest of the nation.
“I want us to ...prepare kids for success in postsecondary options, to get kids ready for where the economy is going,” she said.
Mr. Dorn has been endorsed by a larger contingent of state legislators than has his opponent and by the political arm of the Washington Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.
Ms. Bergeson is a former president of the WEA, an affiliate of the National Education Association. The union backed her during her first campaign. She was unopposed in the 2000 general election. The union backed her opponent, Ms. Billings, in 2004 because of Ms. Bergeson’s support for using the WASL as a high-stakes test.
Ms. Bergeson “is just wrong on so many issues,” said Mary K. Lindquist, the president of the WEA, which has a membership of 82,000 teachers and school support personnel.
The union’s focus on the governor’s race may limit the resources that the union stacks against Ms. Bergeson, suggested George Scarola, the legislative director of the League of Education Voters, a state advocacy group based in Seattle. Despite the WEA endorsement of her opponent, Ms. Bergeson beat the union’s favored candidate in her last race.
And she may still draw support among rank-and-file teachers, many of whom respect her and appreciate her support for teachers’ professional development, Mr. Scarola said.“You never hear anyone say anything critical about Terry’s motivation or her knowledge—she gets high marks, and no one works harder for kids,” he added.
As of press time last week, the education voters’ group had not yet decided whether to endorse a candidate this year.
Elsewhere in the country, two races—in Indiana and Montana—will result in new state chiefs, no matter who wins.
In Indiana, Superintendent of Public Instruction Suellen K. Reed, a Republican, is stepping aside after four terms. Vying to replace her is Republican Tony Bennett, currently the superintendent of the 11,000-student Greater Clark County school system in southern Indiana, and Democrat Richard Wood, a former district superintendent of the Tippecanoe School Corp.
In Montana, Democrat Linda McCulloch is term-limited after eight years in office. Campaigning for her spot are Democrat Denise Juneau, the state’s director of Indian education, and Republican Elaine Sollie Herman, a retired teacher.
North Dakota’s Mr. Sanstead, who took office in 1985, is running against Max Laird, a science teacher, in that state’s nonpartisan election.
North Carolina chief June Atkinson, a Democrat, is seeking a second term; running against her is former state Speaker of the House Richard Morgan, a Republican.
On the state school board front, few if any of this year’s elections are generating much controversy, according to Ms. Welburn, the NASBE executive director.
Recruiting candidates for state board positions generally isn’t too difficult, she observed, sincesome members use them as steppingstones to other elected offices.
Recruitment has been a little harder in New Mexico. A change in state law in 2003 made the elected board of education into an advisory-only commission, but it is still elected. Four seats are up for election this year, and no one is running in one of the districts.
“Why would anyone spend money on a campaign for a board that has no authority?” Ms. Welburn said.
Staff Writer Michele McNeil and Research Librarian Intern Cary Hanson contributed to this article.
Vol. 28, Issue 05, Pages 19-21Published in Print: September 24, 2008, as Schools Chiefs Scrap for Ballot Spotlight