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Here's a Candidate for State Superintendent for Public Instruction Who Opposes NCLB

Go, Juanita!

WASL a factor in race to head schools

In her bid for a third term as the state's top schools official, Terry Bergeson is campaigning to keep her job and her vision for the future of Washington's schools.
This year's race is nothing less than a referendum on the path Bergeson has taken for the past eight years, and the statewide test that's part of it, the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL).

Her two strongest opponents, Judith Billings and Juanita Doyon, would like to redirect that path, or abandon it all together. They strongly criticize the WASL and how it's used.

Billings, who was the state schools superintendent for two terms in the early 1990s, would like to halt plans to make the WASL a graduation requirement in 2008 because she thinks the exam is too hard for the average student, and has become too much of an obsession.

"What we need is a course correction," she said at a recent campaign forum in Bothell. She said she would like to see students evaluated with a portfolio of their work, not just one test.

Doyon, a parent who has fought the test for four years, says the exam has turned schools into depressed places where some students vomit on test day, and teachers are leaving the profession.

"I hear daily from parents whose children are suffering because of the current program in schools," she said at the same forum, organized by the 1st District Democrats.

Bergeson, however, sees progress where her opponents see problems. She doesn't pretend it's easy to set new learning standards, or push students to reach them. But she thinks it's worth the effort, and cites examples of schools where teachers and students are proud of the gains they've made.

She views the WASL as a solid yardstick, developed with the help of hundreds of Washington teachers, and reviewed by some of the nation's top testing experts. Schools need more resources to improve, she says, and students need more than one chance to pass the exam. (And the Legislature this year approved retakes.) But Bergeson thinks abandoning the WASL will hurt students more than the stress of a high-stakes test.

"If they don't have the skills, we've cheated them and we've cheated the whole state," she says.

Two of the other candidates David Blomstrom and KumRoon Maksirisombat oppose the WASL as well, at least as a graduation requirement. John Blair supports it.

The two top vote-getters in next week's primary will advance to the general election, unless any one candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote. In that case, the winner gets the job without a second ballot.

If elected, none of the candidates could do away with the WASL on his or her own. The state superintendent of public instruction's job offers a stage to promote a vision for education but no direct control over much important education policy, which is generally decided by the Legislature.

The salary for the post is $101,750 a year.

Bergeson wants a third term to continue what she started, as superintendent and, before that, as executive director as the Commission on Student Learning, which coordinated the development of the new learning standards, and the WASL. (Billings appointed her to that post.) She has 41 years of experience in education. She started as a teacher in Massachusetts, and has worked as a counselor in Tacoma and a school superintendent in Kitsap County, and was voted president of the Washington Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, in 1985.

She didn't get the WEA's endorsement this year, in part because the union didn't think she fought hard enough to get raises for teachers and more money for schools.

The union also doesn't like Bergeson's support of the charter-school law, passed last spring, that could bring the first such schools to this state public schools free from many regulations, and run by nonprofit groups.

Bergeson says she supported that legislation only after ensuring it wouldn't hurt existing public schools, and has helped defeat other charter bills that didn't meet her criteria.

If elected, Bergeson also says she'll continue fighting for changes to the federal No Child Left Behind Act, especially how it measures the progress of special education and students learning English.

"We have to fix this law or it's going to bring down public education," she says.

Billings is trying to regain a seat she left eight years ago, after she announced she had contracted AIDS through artificial insemination. At the time, she was worried how the disease would affect her health, but now says she is doing great, and her doctor supports her run for office.

In the past eight years, she has been deeply involved in AIDS prevention and education, serving as chair of the Governor's Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, and president of President Clinton's Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. In 2000, she co-chaired a ballot initiative to bring charter schools to this state, but now says she opposes them.

The WEA has endorsed Billings, who says more money for schools is her first priority, followed closely by de-emphasizing the WASL. Billings has been a teacher, a policy adviser to the U.S. House of Representatives education committee, and has a law degree.

Doyon decided to run for the office nearly four years ago, and has been campaigning ever since. She started a group called Mothers Against WASL to galvanize public opposition to the test, which has been small, but growing. She wrote a book called "Not With Our Kids You Don't! Ten Strategies to Save Our Schools." She studied education issues, networked, traveled to conferences, picketed on street corners.

She says she first became concerned about the WASL when two of her children, as fourth-graders, failed parts of it. She found university professors and other educators with strong questions about the tests, and doesn't think their voices have been heard.

She also opposes charter schools, saying the state doesn't need them, and that it is a "union-busting" issue. And she considers the No Child Left Behind act unconstitutional.

The three other candidates in the race Blair, Blomstrom and Maksirisombat focus on different, but related issues.

Blair is a mechanical contractor, former teacher and former Vashon School Board member who wants to give parents the money the state would spend on their children's education each year, and let them use it at any school, public or private, that met a few criteria, including not charging any additional fees. (Schools with organized, devotional instruction would be barred.) "To some degree, I'm test-marketing an idea," he said.

Maksirisombat says he's running because he wants to raise expectations for students, and provide a more diverse curriculum. He has worked in public schools as a teacher and counselor and assistant principal for 26 years in a number of places, including Montana and Seattle. He now is a teacher of English as a Second Language in Federal Way.

Blomstrom declined to answer questions for this story. His campaign Web site says the biggest problems in education are corporate corruption and public apathy. On his Web site, he lists 50 issues he's concerned about, including fighting Microsoft, George Bush and purging the memory of former Seattle Superintendent John Stanford from that city's schools.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com

— Linda Shaw
Seattle Times


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