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Role Of State Superintendent Can Be 'What You Make Of It'

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Steven Depolo
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Flickr
Nine candidates are running in the Aug. 2 primary to be state superintendent.

All nine statewide offices are up for grabs this election year, and about half don’t even have an incumbent running. It’s pretty obvious what most of these elected officials do, such as the governor or the secretary of state. But the job description for the person who runs the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, or what it takes to be successful at it, aren't quite as clear.

Ashley Jochim, a researcher with the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington-Bothell, says the job deals a lot with accountability.

"OSPI employs hundreds of staff and are responsible for everything from monitoring district compliance with state and federal program requirements to developing state standards and assessments, and also providing support and assistance to school districts," Jochim said.

She says as more federal and state policies were passed by lawmakers, the duties of the state superintendent increased. And Jochim says the office really is "what you make of it."

"OSPI, like all state education agencies, are dependent on state policy makers, including the legislature and the governor, but also the state Board of Education," she said.

Randy Dorn
Credit Elaine Thompson / AP Photo
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AP Photo
In this Jan. 12, 2016 file photo, Washington State School Superintendent Randy Dorn listens during testimony on two proposed fixes to the state's charter school system, in Olympia, Wash. The two-term superintendent is not seeking re-election.

But even while those policy makers pass down mandates, outgoing state superintendent Randy Dorn took on more of what Jochim calls "an entrepreneurial" mindset. Jochim says that's especially true when talking about Dorn's stance on McCleary and the state Supreme Court's ruling demanding state lawmakers come up with a new formula to fund basic education that doesn't rely on local property-tax levies.

Though Jochim points out part of the "what you make of it" mentality has to do with getting the right people into the office. And she says that can be a challenge at times because of the process of electing state superintendents.

"Many otherwise passionate and qualified people just simply may not be willing to run for state office," Jochim said. "The process of campaigning just really isn't attractive to most people."

She says one way to make the office more attractive would be to boost the annual salary for the state superintendent.

"In Washington state, the superintendent makes less than half of what a district superintendent in a typical urban district might make. We pay the superintendent of public schools less than what we pay other leaders of state agencies," she said. "So we haven't really put our money where our mouth is."

Another way to bring more qualified candidates into the race for OSPI is by creating a pipeline for them.

"When you think about a district superintendent, they have a pretty well-defined career path. They typically rise through the ranks as a teacher, and then a principal, and then a central office administrator and eventually they become a superintendent."

But Jochim says the state superintendent office doesn't have that same path. Details about each of the nine candidates running for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction included on the Aug. 2 primary ballot are available here

Ariel first entered a public radio newsroom in 2004 while in school at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. It was love at first sight. After graduating from Bradley, she went on to earn a Master's degree in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois at Springfield. Ariel has lived in Indiana, Ohio and Alaska reporting on everything from salmon spawning to policy issues concerning education. She's been a host, a manager and now rides shotgun with Kirsten Kendrick as the Morning Edition producer at KNKX.