State school chief contest focuses on "new"
The leaders in the race for state schools chief are three-term incumbent Terry Bergeson and contender Randy Dorn, a union leader
Seattle Times education reporter
Education: Bachelor's degree in English, Emmanuel College (Boston, Mass.); master's degree, counseling and guidance, Western Michigan University; doctorate in education, University of Washington
Experience: State superintendent of public instruction 1997-present; former classroom teacher, school counselor, school-district administrator; former executive director of the Washington State Commission on Student Learning; former president of the Washington Education Association, the state's largest teachers union
Web site: www.TerryBergeson2008.com
Randy DornAge: 54
Education: Bachelor's degree, education, University of Idaho; master's degree, education, Pacific Lutheran University; superintendent's credentials, Washington State University.
Experience: Executive director, Public School Employees of Washington (represents classified employees) 1999-present; motivational speaker; education consultant; State House of Representatives, 1987-1994; high-school principal and high-school and elementary-school teacher
Web site: www.randydorn2008.com
One candidate says he stands for change. The other stresses the value of her experience.
In this race, however, the "change" candidate isn't a fresh, young face like Barack Obama. And the "experience" candidate, unlike Hillary Rodham Clinton, already has held the job she seeks for nearly 12 years.
But the question of whether it's time for someone new is as central to the race for state superintendent of public instruction as it was in the Democrats' presidential primaries.
Randy Dorn, 54, is running as the "change" candidate. He pledges to bring a fresh perspective to school policy — especially what's occurred since 1993, when he chaired the House Education Committee and helped write the law that led to the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL), the test that students now must pass to graduate from high school.
He's challenging Terry Bergeson, 65, who wants four more years as state superintendent to make sure the state doesn't backtrack on what she considers her major accomplishment — setting higher standards for students, and sticking to them.
Four other people are running: former Vashon Island School Board member and teacher John Blair; former Seattle Public Schools employee David Blomstrom; Edgewood (King County) City Councilwoman and businesswoman Enid Duncan; and retired teacher and administrator Donald Hansler, of Spanaway, Pierce County.
But Bergeson and Dorn appear to lead the pack. They are the only two who have raised much money to date. Bergeson's contributions total about $143,300. Dorn has raised about $68,400.
If any one candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary, the race is over. If not, the top two vote-getters advance to the general election.
This is not the first time Bergeson has faced a challenger who says she's led schools astray by putting too much emphasis on the WASL. Four years ago, Judith Billings, once state superintendent herself, made that argument in her unsuccessful campaign.
Bergeson says she's running again because she's "worried about the future." Washington schools, she says, are better than they were 12 years ago, and "I don't want to go back."
Dorn, however, is banking on what he says is a growing frustration with the WASL and Bergeson's leadership.
"The public and educators have lost faith in Terry," he said. As a former state legislator, he says he has "the respect to get things done."
During Bergeson's tenure, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction has made adjustments to the WASL and the learning standards it's designed to test — and is in the process of shortening parts of the exam.
Bergeson, along with Gov. Christine Gregoire, also recommended delaying the date when high-school students would have to pass the math section of the WASL to graduate.
But Bergeson has long opposed efforts to remove the WASL as a graduation requirement all together, or delay the year when students had to pass the reading and writing sections.
"We can't start second-guessing ourselves now," she said.
This year was the first that students had to pass those two sections of the exam — or an approved alternative — to earn their diplomas.
Bergeson considers that effort a shining victory, emphasizing that 91 percent of all seniors succeeded in meeting those higher standards.
Dorn, however, counters that she's overstating the success rate.
That 91 percent, he says, doesn't count the students who dropped out before this fall. It also doesn't count those who have been in school for four years but are behind in credits. The WASL passage rate for all the students who entered high school four years ago is still being tallied.
The WASL is also a big part of why Bergeson has lost support from the Washington Education Association, the teachers union she once led. Spokesman Rich Wood says Bergeson has been deaf to teachers' concerns about the WASL.
But Bergeson has strong backing from many members of the business community. Some of her biggest contributors so far this year include wireless entrepreneur John Stanton, technology entrepreneur and Aldus Corp. founder Paul Brainerd and real-estate developer Jon Runstad.
She's also received support from the Washington Association of School Administrators, the professional group for school-district superintendents.
Former Gov. Gary Locke said he supports Bergeson because he considers her a strong advocate for teachers and students. "I've seen her interact with teachers all across the state ... asking them what they need most, how can she be most helpful to them," he said.
And even some her detractors say they don't doubt her commitment or sincerity.
Dorn and his supporters, however, say Bergeson is too bound up in the WASL exams, which they consider too long, too expensive, and of too little use for teachers.
"It's time for her to step aside," said Dwight Pelz, chairman of the Washington State Democrats, which supported Bergeson four years ago, but not now.
"We need a fresh look at the WASL ... and she's not willing to do that," he said.
Dorn says he'd like to replace the WASL with a shorter, cheaper set of exams. He says he'd then work with state legislators to design a new graduation requirement that includes testing, but also factors such as attendance and grades.
He also thinks that, given his experience in the Legislature, he can do a better job than Bergeson has at convincing state lawmakers to increase funding for schools.
But Bergeson says her experience would give her the edge. Who's better prepared to win that and other battles, she asks, than someone who's been fighting them all these years?
Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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