Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Pandemic-era schooling is an issue in the race for state superintendent

The race for state superintendent of public instruction comes at a critical time for the state’s 1.1 million schoolchildren. Pictured above: incumbent Chris Reykdal and challenger Maia Espinoza.
The race for state superintendent of public instruction comes at a critical time for the state’s 1.1 million schoolchildren. Pictured above: incumbent Chris Reykdal and challenger Maia Espinoza.";

UPDATE, 6 p.m.: Adds comments from a press conference held by Maia Espinoza in which she addressed how she'd pay for stipends to families during remote learning.  

The race for state superintendent of public instruction comes at a critical time for the state’s 1.1 million schoolchildren, most of whom are learning from home right now due to the pandemic. The incumbent, Chris Reykdal, and his challenger, Maia Espinoza, have different approaches to pandemic-era schooling.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction is the agency that oversees public K-12 education in Washington. It’s a nonpartisan office, but the two candidates come from different political parties. Reykdal is a former Democratic state representative and social studies teacher. Espinoza ran as a Republican for a state House seat two years ago to represent a Pierce County district, but did not win. She runs an organization called the Center for Latino Leadership.

Espinoza did not respond to repeated requests for an interview with KNKX. But in debates, she’s been vocal about the burdens families face right now with remote learning. Without explaining how she would pay for it, Espinoza has said that families should get a $2,500 stipend per student to help cover home learning expenses.

“That means a lot to a family that’s having to pay for day care or is having to pay for internet connectivity, because their school is operating entirely online,” she said in a debate hosted by the Association of Washington Business in September.

Espinoza took questions from reporters in a late-day press conference on Monday, after Gov. Jay Inslee, Democratic U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal and others held a press conference likening Espinoza to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and saying she wants to take tax dollars out of public education. Espinoza told reporters that she believes dollars in the education system belong to the student, not the system, and that school districts are saving money right now on such things as school resource officers and transportation. Ultimately, she said sending stipends to families would be up to the legislature.

In an interview with KNKX, Reykdal said he loves the idea of assisting families during remote learning and has urged the state’s congressional delegation to include child care funding in the next federal stimulus bill. But he said it’s hard at the state level to find the funds for that kind of stipend.

“It’s nearly $3 billion on a one-time basis, so you’re either cutting $3 billion out of the services we’re currently providing, which is remote learning and everything else, or you’ve got to come up with new money,” Reykdal said.

Espinoza also has criticized Reykdal’s approach to helping schools reopen for some in-person learning. She said many parents want that, but districts haven’t gotten enough clear guidance from the state.

Reykdal said his office and the state department of health have put out detailed guidance on how to reopen safely and that a number of districts in Eastern Washington are doing just that. But he said he does not have the authority to order schools to open or close — that’s up to local districts or the governor.


Another heated issue in the campaign has been the topic of comprehensive sexual health education. Reykdal successfully advocated for the Legislature to pass a bill earlier this year requiring that districts teach comprehensive sex education by the 2022-23 school year. Districts can choose curriculum to use but it has to meet state requirements, including being age-appropriate and scientifically and medically accurate. Parents have the option to excuse their students from the instruction.

While many districts already teach sexual health education, Reykdal has said there’s a need to have it taught statewide in part because students need to know the meaning of affirmative consent and how to set boundaries for their own safety.

“Our students are telling us that they’re victims of sexual abuse, sexual assault, unwanted sexual touch at alarmingly high rates — 1 in 6 boys, 1 in 3 girls,” Reykdal said. “That does not stop when they go to college. We’ve spent the better part of a decade saying, 'Why don’t those colleges address sexual assaults?’ And what I’ve had to candidly say to them is partly because you’re one of only 20 states or so that doesn’t have a comprehensive plan to address this through education when they’re in the K-12 system.”

And yet, the issue has generated so much controversy that opponents gathered signatures to put Referendum 90 on the Nov. 3 ballot. The referendum asks voters to weigh in on whether the law requiring comprehensive sexual health education to be taught should go into effect.

Opponents of the law, including Espinoza, have inaccurately said that sexual positions will be taught to fourth graders.

One curriculum on a list of materials that have been reviewed by OSPI and the state Department of Health and found to be consistent with state requirements for fourth and fifth grade is “Rights, Respect, Responsibility” from Advocates for Youth. It’s not a curriculum mandated by OSPI — it’s something districts could choose to use.

The so-called 3Rs curriculum has a handout of additional resources for parents, including a book called “It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex and Sexual Health” by Robie H. Harris. The book does include illustrations of a couple having sex in different positions, but parents would have to seek out the book and then decide to show it to their children. It’s not something that educators would show to students in class.

Espinoza said in her voter candidate statement: “The incumbent ignored parents and educators by championing a policy that teaches sexual positions to 4th graders!”

Reykdal sued to have that sentence removed from the voter pamphlet. A Thurston County Superior Court judge sided with Reykdal and said the sentence is “untrue” and that Reykdal had a “very substantial likelihood” of prevailing in a defamation case. He ordered the sentence to be removed from the voter pamphlet. But Espinoza challenged that order and the Washington state Supreme Court allowed the sentence to remain in the pamphlet.

On Oct. 22, a majority of the state Supreme Court explained their decision, saying that Reykdal had to show “actual malice” to prove defamation and he hadn’t met that bar. They said Espinoza’s statement is “inflammatory” but not false, because the policy could “result in unintentionally exposing fourth graders to depictions of, and thus 'teaching’ them, different sexual positions,” even though that would have to come from a parent or caregiver’s decision to show them the book, not from classroom instruction.

In a dissenting opinion written by Justice Steven González and signed by Justice Mary Yu and Justice Raquel Montoya-Lewis, González said Espinoza’s statement was “false and misleading” and that Reykdal had met the burden to have the statement removed.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.