The race for the non-partisan Office of Superintendent of Instruction is typically a pretty tame contest compared to many other races, but not this year.
Incumbent and former three-term state representative Chris Reykdal is wrapping up his first term as the state schools chief, having fought hard, and at least to some degree, achieved funding for basic education and special education funding, among other top issues for students and their families.
The controversy surrounding the post in 2020 surrounds two main issues: The pandemic-sparked remote learning that most school districts have elected to remain in, and the inequities that has thrust into the spotlight.
“I’ve been fighting to reopen schools in a safe and sensible way — if elected the first thing that I’ll be doing is working with local school districts on the ground that are ready to reopen,” Espinoza has vowed.
Racism, the achievement gap, and other issues have also come up during the race but none as much as SB 5395, the Reykdal-requested bill approved in the last session that mandates comprehensive sexual health education in all K-12 schools.
That law led thousands to trek to Olympia over the past two years to speak passionately both for and against the controversial curriculum, that depending on who you ask, is either about protecting or destroying your children.
It is also what prompted teacher and mom Maia Espinoza to jump into the race.
“I was in Olympia two years ago testifying against this bill — it was the colors and flavors of condoms that they’re teaching to kids at the same time the Legislature was proposing a ban on flavored vape products because they appeal to children. So there’s huge hypocrisy in this bill,” Espinoza said during a recent press call.
“Nothing against sex-ed, but to the parents that are in favor of this sex-ed mandate advocate at your local school board, you and your district likely have it. If not, go to a district or advocate to your school board for a type of curriculum that you see fit. This is what happened at the local level when some of these as parents perceived them as inappropriate curriculum options that were presented at the local level, when they were met with contention the school board wrestled and debated over it, just like we do with every other curriculum and, in some cases, it was implemented. In others, it was not,” she continued, stressing that Reykdal had no right to request legislation that takes away that local process in favor of a one size fits all statewide option.
Reykdal contends it is not a one size fits all option, as OSPI only sets minimum standards any district must meet, but they can select their own curriculum or can even create their own at the local level.
He also accuses Espinoza and her campaign of misleading the public by manipulating images about what’s actually included in the curriculum.
“It is dishonest, it is wrong, it is unethical,” Reykdal said during a recent debate.
Espinoza has raised a little over $222,000 with just over $38,000 in outside money, mostly opposed to her campaign, funneling into the race. Reykdal on the other hand has raised a little more than $350,000, but there’s been over $706,000 in independent spending from a PAC mostly funded by the Washington Education Association dumped into the race supporting him – more than half of that in the past two weeks — and no outside spending against him.
This is not the norm for an OSPI race. Also not typical of the race for state schools chief was a press conference called a couple of weeks ago, where Governor Jay Inslee, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, and a handful of other high profile Democrats spoke out against Espinoza.
“I am here to deliver a warning to Washingtonians and that warning is that the Republican Party, through Chris’s opponent, is staging what you might think of as a sneak attack on public education, an effort to reduce our investment in our schools by $2.5 billion,” Inlsee warned.
“We have now smoked her out to find out she has proposed to cut school budgets by $2.5 billion. This is unexcusable in our state, and the reason is, is that Chris’s opponent, is following the Trump policies of voucherizing in our public school system, reducing support for our teachers, and we cannot go that direction in our state,” he added.
“I think of her as the Betsy DeVos of Washington state,” said Jayapal. “I know exactly how bad that is for public education as someone who has spent every single year in Congress that I’ve been there fighting back against the corrupt and very dangerous Trump privatization agenda. Betsy DeVos and Maia Espinoza both want to take our tax dollars out of our public schools, turn them into vouchers and send them to private unaccountable institutions,” said Jayapal.
“The only major difference between Betsy and Maia is that at least Betsy DeVos is honest about what she’s trying to do,” added Jayapal.
Even the state Supreme Court had to get involved in this race, as Reykdal looked to sue Espinoza for defamation over a statement in her voter pamphlet.
“The incumbent ignored parents and educators by championing a policy that teaches sexual positions to 4th graders!” the pamphlet stated.
Reykdal included a declaration stating that while he supported the new comprehensive sexual health education law, he never advocated for the teaching of sexual positions to fourth graders. Espinoza responded, explaining that her statement was based on the curriculum handout’s reference to two pages in the book titled, “It’s Perfectly Normal.”
It turns out the handouts are sent home for parents to prepare them to engage with their children – and that was enough for Reykdal to lose his bid to sue for defamation, with the justices writing, in part:
Reykdal’s argument that the handout is not part of the curriculum is also flawed. While it is true that the handout’s book reference is not specifically listed in the curriculum, this does not break the logical chain of Espinoza’s statement: The policy requires the superintendent to recommend curricula, the 3Rs Curriculum includes the informative handout, the handout encourages parents and guardians to read and share the book with their children, and the book includes depictions of a couple having intercourse in two different positions. It is unlikely but truthful that the policy could result in unintentionally exposing fourth graders to depictions of, and thus ‘teaching’ them, different sexual positions.
The future of the sex-ed mandate in Washington will be decided on Election Day, but not by the OSPI race. That is being decided by voters through Referendum 90.
Those who support the curriculum argue it is vital to protect kids.
“We’re making sure that high quality and effective sex education is offered in kindergarten through third grade. That means social and emotional learning for self-awareness, self-control and interpersonal skills, relationship building, and in middle school, we’re talking about topics like human development and puberty, and increasing those building blocks for understanding bodily autonomy and consent,” said Approve R-90 campaign manager, Courtney Norman, with Safe and Healthy Youth Washington.
“Then in high school, we’re talking about teaching students about ways to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, making sure that they understand what they need to know about birth control and abstinence, and especially understanding the concepts of affirmative consent for healthy relationships and violence prevention,” she added.
“I think the problem is really when you dig into this, you realize that there’s some missing details here that really actually would impact a decision on how people would feel about this and I don’t think the approved side is being completely honest, for obvious reasons as to what that is,” said Kristin Hyde, with the Reject R-90 campaign.
”This is a rallying cry for people that want to protect their children and want to keep decisions about this kind of sensitive topic at the local level,” she added.
Hyde says there are other issues too, such as the claim that parents can opt their kids out of the curriculum. Not true, says Hyde, because supporters plan to have it bleed through into other subjects. However, the bill says that no sexual health education is required to “be integrated into curriculum, materials, or instruction in unrelated subject matters or courses.”
The bottom line for supporters is research shows comprehensive sex-ed lowers STD and pregnancy rates among young people, leads to safer behavior, and in some cases becoming sexually active later in life, while also ensuring young people recognize when they are being abused and do not become abusers themselves, by teaching – when age appropriate – affirmative consent.