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Truth-test: Nonpartisan superintendent’s race brings out partisan ties, accusations

Incumbent Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal faces Maia Espinoza in the November 2020 election.
Incumbent Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal faces Maia Espinoza in the November 2020 election.

With less than a week before Election Day, partisan ties in the nonpartisan superintendent of public instruction race have become clear.

Incumbent Chris Reykdal, backed by the state Democratic Party, is facing challenger Maia Espinoza, backed by the state Republican Party, for his spot as the state’s chief schools official.

Worried they might lose control of education policy if Reykdal loses, prominent Democrats, including Gov. Jay Inslee and U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, held a news conference this week to “sound the alarm” on Espinoza’s plans they say would cut funding to public schools.

Jayapal called Espinoza the “Betsy DeVos of Washington” – referring to the Secretary of Education’s support for school choice and voucher programs.

The state Democratic Party has donated $105,000 into Reykdal’s campaign in the last week.

Republicans and Espinoza want to return to the status quo and not upend public schools, state GOP Rep. Drew Stokesbary said in a news conference.

“Why is anybody afraid of a Hispanic mother of three who cares about kids across the state as our superintendent of public instruction?” added state Sen. Mark Schoesler, of Ritzville. “This would be a superintendent of public instruction that is not a slave to the union bosses.”

Meanwhile, the state Republican Party contributed $10,000 to Espinoza in the past week.

Accusations from both sides about the other candidate’s plan and background have circulated throughout the campaign, but what’s true? The Spokesman-Review took a look.

Claim: Espinoza’s plans for a COVID-19 relief package for parents would drain $2.5 billion from public school funds.

Source: Inslee, Jayapal and other Democrats at a Monday news conference.

Truthfulness: Could be true, but Espinoza said she doesn’t have a specific plan for where the money would come from.

Analysis: Democrats claimed Monday that Espinoza would cut public school funding by $2.5 billion. The claim likely comes from Espinoza’s proposal early in the pandemic to give parents $2,500 per student, which she said would help with technology costs or supplies.

The cost for the 1.1 million public school students in the state would add up to about $2.5 billion. Democrats claim it would amount to a 20% loss of public school funding.

Inslee argued Monday the cut would result in a loss of funding of teachers and negatively affect class sizes. “This is inexcusable in our state,” he said.

Espinoza admitted she was not sure where the money for the stipends would come from and that it would ultimately be up to the Legislature. She did suggest school districts look at ways they are not spending money as students are not in school, such as on transportation or utilities.

The funding could look different in each district, she said.

“I firmly believe the dollars belong to the students, not the system,” Espinoza said.

Claim: Espinoza supports school choice and voucher programs.

Source: Inslee, Jayapal and other Democrats at a Monday news conference

Truthfulness: True.

Analysis: Espinoza has been open about supporting school choice, something she said would improve inequities in school districts. She hasn’t been clear, however, on what that would look like.

Democrats accused Espinoza of supporting what Jayapal called a “corrupt and very dangerous DeVos-Trump privatization agenda.”

Espinoza said she has no affiliation with what’s happening federally and does not have any support from DeVos or Trump. She said she does support school choice, however, adding she does not think giving parents options is bad.

She told the Associated Press she supports more funding for charter schools, as well as testing a broader private school voucher system statewide.

“Parents will always choose what is best for their kid,” she told The Spokesman-Review in June.

Claim: Espinoza has a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction.

Source: Espinoza voters guide statement

Truthfulness: Mostly false, as of now.

Analysis: In her voters guide statement for both the primary and the general elections, Espinoza claimed to have a master’s degree from Western Governors University, an online program. She does not include the year she received it.

Espinoza has recently come out to say she is finishing up the degree now, after Reykdal repeatedly claimed she did not yet have it. In a Monday news conference, Espinoza said the term ends at the end of this month and her thesis has been turned in.

In a Washington State Wire virtual debate on Sept. 17, Espinoza said she had finished all of her classes and only needed to finish her thesis. At the time, she called it a “nonissue.”

At a League of Women Voters virtual debate from Oct. 6, Reykdal said he had concerns about Espinoza’s lack of transparency.

Claim: Espinoza’s organization, the Center for Latino Leadership, is a nonprofit with 501©3 tax exemption.

Source: Center for Latino Leadership website

Truthfulness: False.

Analysis: The Center for Latino Leadership, which Espinoza founded, claims on its website to be “an incorporated, nonprofit organization in Washington State operating under section 501©3 of the Internal Revenue Code.”

The organization does not actually have the federal tax-exempt status, according to the Associated Press.

The tax exemption allows public charities that serve the public interest to be exempt from paying federal income tax and to collect tax-deductible contributions from donors. Those organizations are then prohibited from making profits or participating in expressly political activities.

Espinoza told the Associated Press she never claimed donations were tax deductible and that the organization has been trying to apply for 501©3 status for years but had issues with its accounting firm.

“It’s been a process for sure, but we’ve been diligent in operating as a C3,” Espinoza said in an email to the Associated Press.

In a Monday news conference, she told reporters the 501©3 status is just a stricter form of a nonprofit but her organization has always acted as if they have the tax-exemption.

“This has nothing to do with the great work we’ve done,” she said. “In no way have I misrepresented.”

Claim: Reykdal champions a position that teaches sexual positions to fourth-graders.

Source: Espinoza’s voters guide statement

Truthfulness: Depends on who you ask.

Analysis: In the voters guide, Espinoza claims Reykdal champions a position that teaches sexual positions to fourth-graders, referring to his support for the controversial sex ed bill that passed last session.

Reykdal, who claims he would never teach such a thing, took Espinoza to court. The Thurston County Superior Court ruled in favor of Reykdal, saying Espinoza’s statement was false and should be taken out of the voters guide.

Espinoza appealed to the state Supreme Court, which released its opinion last week, saying the statement was not demonstrably false and Reykdal would not prevail in a defamation suit.

“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,” Chief Justice Debra Stephens wrote in the majority opinion.

Reykdal has argued the material Espinoza refers to is a third-party source that parents can use in addition to what is being taught in school.

In a dissent, Justice Steven Gonzalez argued her statement is not a reasonable or plausible interpretation of the facts.

“The trail of bread crumbs is just too faint,” Gonzalez wrote.

After the Supreme Court’s ruling in August, Espinoza said she did not intend to lie, but rather to expose the truth.

Reykdal said he worried for what the court’s decision could mean for future politicians’ statements in voters guides.

Claim: Espinoza is a teacher.

Source: Espinoza’s voters guide statement.

Truthfulness: Only if you use a broader definition of “teacher.”

Analysis: Espinoza, who states in her voters guide statement that she is a school teacher, is not a licensed teacher, but she did previously teach music at her daughter’s private school one day a week for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

When asked about her teaching experience in an Oct. 12 debate, Espinoza said she was a paid, hourly teacher.

“I really got to experience and appreciate the demands put on teachers,” Espinoza said.


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.

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