11 Duke It Out in High-Profile Race for Schools Chief in Wash.

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Voters in Washington state are being treated to a free-for-all as they prepare to narrow a crowded field of candidates for state superintendent of public instruction.

A larger-than-life millionaire with a doctorate in American studies has bankrolled his campaign with more than $680,000 of his own money. A young county councilman from the Seattle suburbs who's a rising Republican star is making his debut for statewide office. There's a labor-history professor and former Peace Corps volunteer pressing a traditional liberal agenda of equal educational opportunity. And a former teacher, administrator, and president of the state teachers' union has taken to reminding voters that, in a field with its share of outsiders, "there's nothing wrong with a little experience."

Polls show that education is the top concern among Washington voters, and analysts say it's the highest-profile schools chief election in the state's history.

"This is the first time this position has gotten so much attention," said Trevor Neilson, a spokesman for the Washington Education Association. "It's a hot office to talk about."

The current schools chief, Judith A. Billings, is retiring after two terms in the post. And the 11 candidates--the most ever to run for the office--vying to replace her atop the 900,000-student public school system have capitalized on voter interest. They've spent unprecedented sums on their campaigns; papered the state with a forest of yard signs, billboards, and fliers; and filled the airwaves with their ideas for the schools.

What's at Stake

Voters go to the polls next week to reduce the field to two candidates who will square off in the November election. And as they chugged through the campaign's last days, the contenders identified themselves with the full range of reform topics.

There is the parental-involvement candidate, the safe-schools candidate, and the empowered-teachers-and-administrators candidate. The field has taken vastly different positions on school vouchers and charter schools--both issues on the ballot this November.

The would-be chiefs are also casting the campaign as a verdict on the state's 1993 outcomes- and standards-oriented school-reform law. Candidates for chiefs' post include both authors and opponents of the legislation.

Observers say the outcome of the election will likely determine whether the state will forge ahead with new standards and reform, or abandon the law altogether and strike out in some new direction.

"There's a lot at stake this election year," said Larry Marrs, the dean of education at Western Washington University in Bellingham. "The issues involved are quite dramatic."

Insiders and Outsiders

Through the crowded field of candidates, public opinion--and funding--favor four contenders: former union chief Terry Bergeson, King County Councilman Chris Vance, Evergreen State College professor and labor expert Dan Leahy, and developer and cattle breeder Ron Taber.

All the candidates run in a nonpartisan primary.

Ms. Bergeson, 53, of Olympia, is a former teacher, guidance counselor, school administrator, president of the WEA, and, most recently, the head of the governor's Commission on Student Learning, which implemented the 1993 Education Reform Act.

This campaign is Ms. Bergeson's second for state superintendent. She lost to Ms. Billings in 1992.

Ms. Bergeson is a favorite among education professionals and has been endorsed by several labor organizations, including the WEA, the Aerospace Machinists, and the Teamsters. Most recently, she was backed by the Seattle Times.

Ms. Bergeson said she would use the school chief's post to restore faith in public schools and "pull the whole community together." If elected, she would she advance the implementation of the education-reform law she has been so closely tied to.

She opposes school vouchers, which she said would "destroy public schools," and although she said she's open to the idea of new types of schools, she is against the ballot initiative for charter schools.

The race, Ms. Bergeson said, "is a referendum on public schools."

"We can either move forward or backward," she said. "I have the leadership and experience for the job, and I fully intend to win because I'm the best one for kids."

Mr. Vance, 34, of Kent, works on the Metropolitan King County Council, and is a former GOP state representative who was on the House education committee when the reform law was drafted.

He has pledged to make education reform happen faster. He criticized the commission on learning led by Ms. Bergeson for what he sees as complicating and stalling the implementation of the law's mandates by being "mushy and vague." He said lawmakers wanted a simpler set of standards and tests.

"The commission is way behind and has made things really problematic. For [reform] to happen, we need to make the academic and testing standards clear and understandable to teachers and parents," he said.

As a self-proclaimed outsider, Mr. Vance is the local-control candidate.

Though he opposes both the voucher and charter school ballot initiatives, he has his own charter school proposal that he said is simpler and that he would put before the legislature if elected.

Mr. Vance has been endorsed by the Washington Alliance, a nonprofit group of business leaders, area developers and builders, and, like Ms. Bergeson, he got the nod of the Seattle Times.

Going for the Spotlight

Ron Taber, 54, of Olympia, is a former professor of American studies and real-estate developer who now raises cattle and manages a fortune he has amassed to finance his candidacy and break records for election spending. Should his investment pay off, he would like to do away with the education reform the state has devised.

Mr. Taber has followed a strategy of seizing the media spotlight by serving up some highly provocative views. He endorsed caning for young drug offenders, called Spanish the language of "doormen and fruit pickers," and, most recently, told a panel of newspaper editors that he believes in "the right to be ignorant."

"You get far more press for saying such things, and then you can talk about the real issues," Mr. Taber said. "They're a metaphor."

Although he lacks traditional credentials for the job, his flamboyance and sky's-the-limit advertising spree have earned him widespread attention. Observers say he could possibly win one of the two runoff spots.

Mr. Taber characterizes education reform as "makeovers that don't work," and said it will take a true outsider--himself--to improve schools.

"Insiders have tried for years to reform schools, and all of their efforts have failed. We've always known how to teach: well-prepared teachers and parental involvement are key," he said.

Prodded to run by his mother, a former schoolteacher, Mr. Taber said he would like to see education "get back to basics" in smaller schools, where teachers, parents, and students would all know each other.

As the author of Initiative 173, the school voucher ballot initiative he said "would empower parents" to become involved in their schools, Mr. Taber said he would like to see hundreds of independent school districts "more like private schools," with schools no larger than 200 students.

A fourth candidate with a strong base is Dan Leahy, 52, of Olympia. Mr. Leahy is a professor of public administration at Evergreen State College in Olympia.

Mr. Leahy is against the voucher and charter school initiatives and criticizes the state's reform law for what he considers its business orientation and elitism.

Other, lesser-known candidates in the race include Jed Brown, an education consultant and the publisher of a newsletter called The Traditional Educator. Raul de la Rosa is the director of educational-support services in Ms. Billings' office.

Nancy Hidden-Dodson is a psychologist for the North Kitap school district. Richard Fuller is a laborer. Gloria Guzman Johannessen is a bilingual-education specialist in the Pasco school district.

Earl LaBerge is a retired teacher and principal. And Mae Lovern is another retired teacher.

Vol. 16, Issue 02

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