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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Superintendent candidates debate COVID procedures, school equity and Referendum 90 in forum

Candidates for the state superintendent of public instruction clashed over local control, COVID-19 procedures and comprehensive sexual health education in a Tuesday night debate.

The debate, sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the Spokesman-Review, featured incumbent Chris Reykdal and challenger Maia Espinoza. Spokesman-Review reporter Laurel Demkovich moderated.

Espinoza criticized Reykdal for a lack of leadership during the pandemic, saying there needs to be more guidance from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction during remote learning.

She said OSPI needs to be “boots on the ground” helping local school districts who want to reopen, adding parents across Washington want schools to reopen.

“I think it’s a copout to say that we don’t have the authority at OSPI to be able to help these local control decisions,” Espinoza said.

Northwest Passages Virtual Forum / The Spokesman-Review

Reykdal pointed out that OSPI does not have the executive power the governor has, nor the legal authority that the Legislature has to make decisions.

OSPI cannot amend current law, declare emergencies or forcibly close or reopen schools, Reykdal said.

All he has the power to do is work with school districts and the legislature to ensure they have the proper funding and resources. He said he’s partnered with local districts and health departments to determine the best course for reopening.

Reykdal pointed to the guidance released from OSPI and health officials on when and how to reopen. He said OSPI has also worked to provide technology to school districts and students that might need it.

“We don’t do this by ourselves,” Reykdal said. “Local control really, really matters.”

Espinoza said OSPI should be better supporting teachers during this time so they can focus mostly on teaching and less on administrative duties. She said she has heard from teachers who are putting in more hours than ever and from parents who feel like teachers aren’t doing enough.

Reykdal said OSPI has helped to train teachers in all the learning models they might be using, online or in person, but acknowledged that it isn’t sustainable. He said he’s urged teachers to focus less on strict standards.

On Referendum 90, Espinoza said she does not support a statewide mandate for comprehensive sexual health education as it is something that should be up to school districts and parents.

Espinoza got into the race because of Referendum 90 and helped gather enough signatures to put the controversial bill passed last session on the ballot this November.

Sex ed isn’t a partisan issue, Espinoza said, and she supports teaching sex ed in school.

“What I’m not in favor of is a statewide, top-down mandate,” Espinoza said.

She said the bill limits the options that school districts can use when teaching sex ed. She called comprehensive sexual health education a very specific type of curriculum that most parents don’t find age-appropriate.

Reykdal said he does support Referendum 90, citing sexual assault statistics in Washington youth and calling it a “public health crisis.”

“Ultimately, school districts can say, ‘We don’t want any of those choices,’” Reykdal said.

He said there is local and parental control in the new bill, which allows parents to opt out and allows school districts to choose their curriculum. Reykdal said school districts can choose from an OSPI list, find a different one elsewhere or create their own.

The hour-long debate, which also includes issues of school choice, funding and civics education, can be viewed on TVW.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.