A boy named Bobby and a girl named Lupita represented the past and present when Washington’s top educator gave her final State of Education address Friday in Spokane.
Bobby was a struggling student 45 years ago when Terry Bergeson was a first-year teacher. Lupita is a girl she met in June who graduated with honors while teaching her parents to speak English.
Either could have fallen through the cracks, Bergeson said. But Bobby became a success in high school, and Lupita is studying nursing at Washington State University’s branch campus in the Tri-Cities.
“We have done incredible work,” Bergeson told 1,000 members of the Washington State School Directors’ Association, who gave her standing ovations.
A few hours after Bergeson’s reflective speech, her replacement as superintendent of public instruction stepped onto the same stage with a far different style and a far different message.
The theme from “Flashdance” played loudly as former teacher, principal and legislator Randy Dorn began a speech in which he called on board members and educators to “think big.”
How big? Dorn said they need to look beyond their local schools, or even the state’s education system. They ought to work for all Americans by helping him lobby Congress to invest in schools with $100 billion of bailout money that will otherwise go to banks or automakers.
As he made that pitch, the former motivational speaker cued Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.”
“The federal government does not know where to put their money to make a difference in our economy. I want you to know that I do. I do,” Dorn said. “We’re going to invest in the education of our youth and change our economy and make a difference so all Americans win.”
Dorn said he’s already spoken to U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell about the proposal and will discuss it next week with U.S. Sen. Patty Murray.
He didn’t mention Gov. Chris Gregoire, who has a proposal of her own. Gregoire last week called on Congress to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in state construction projects to put people to work and improve the infrastructure.
Nor did he mention Barack Obama, who has called on Congress to bail out the auto industry to save hundreds of thousands of jobs.
But Bergeson praised the governor and president-elect, saying that for educators, Obama’s election “was like walking out of the darkness into the light.”
Bergeson, who has been superintendent of public instruction for 12 years, lost to Dorn in her bid for a fourth term. The pair were allies in the 1990s, when Dorn was head of the House Education Committee and Bergeson served as chairwoman of the Washington State Commission on Student Learning.
In those posts, they worked together on an education reform package that eventually led to the WASL. Both registered to run for superintendent of public instruction in 1996, but Dorn withdrew his name and endorsed Bergeson.
Fast-forward 12 years, and Dorn is highly critical of what the WASL has become. A keystone of his campaign was reforming the standardized test to make it shorter, less expensive and less of a driver when teachers are preparing lessons.
As in the past, Bergeson on Friday conceded that the WASL remains an imperfect and evolving test, but said she makes “no apologies” for it. While Dorn has said he might look to other states for a test to replace the WASL, Bergeson said that no “off-the-shelf test” can effectively gauge whether students meet Washington’s learning standards.
“Rethink the test, throw darts at it, turn it upside, but … do not destroy what educators in this state have built so carefully in the past decade,” said Bergeson, who lost the support of the Washington Education Association partly over the WASL.
Bergeson warned of hard times ahead because of the “horrendous financial crisis” facing the state, but she urged educators to remain involved in the process to restructure education funding.
Sounding for a moment like Dorn, who sprinkled his talk with football analogies, Bergeson told educators to “pay attention and get in the game, baby,” because when the tough economic times end “our money should follow our values about our kids.”
Dorn did not specifically mention the state’s $5 billion-plus budget shortfall. But he did note that Washington has the only state constitution that names education as the state’s “paramount” duty.
Nor did Dorn call on the state to raise taxes as a partial solution to solving the budget crisis – something Gregoire has said she won’t do. But he did tell of a time 15 years ago, when he and other legislators did that very thing, even though it was politically unpopular.
“You have to make tough choices as a leader, but that’s what makes you a great leader,” he said.