Few people would wish to be in Randy Dorn's shoes. This month, he replaces three-term incumbent Terry Bergeson as the state superintendent of public instruction for Washington – a state that ranks 42nd in the nation when it comes to K-12 funding, and 46th for average class size. On top of those sobering statistics, Gov. Chris Gregoire's proposed budget includes $800 million in cuts for K-12 public schools.
Dorn's election win was seen by many as a referendum on Bergeson and her unwavering support for the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL), taken each year by third- through 10th-grade students. During the campaign, Dorn argued for the WASL to either be replaced or revamped into a shorter, cheaper, more diagnostic test.
What will Dorn do differently, as he steps into his new office? What are his challenges? I caught up with Dorn, along with other education experts in our state to get their take on the state superintendent as he leads our schools through difficult times.
What About the WASL?
The WASL, used to meet the mandates in the federal No Child Left Behind education law, is our state's education lightning rod.
Business groups and some legislators applaud the test for bringing accountability to schools. Others, including the state's largest teachers union and many parents, loathe the test, saying it has a narrow, high-stakes approach to measuring student learning. They also complain it takes too much time away from classroom teaching.
Currently, the WASL is scheduled across a three-week period each spring, with students working on the test a few hours each day. Results are not available until the following school year.
The test, itself, reportedly will cost nearly $40 million to administer in 2009. The hefty price tag is in part due to the number of open-ended questions that must be hand-scored.
Given the contentiousness around the test, does Dorn plan to stick with his campaign priority to replace or overhaul the WASL?
In a word, yes. "We're in the planning process now," Dorn says. In an interview late last year, he didn't offer many details, saying he was in talks with legislators and the test contractor and planned to announce specifics later this month, after he takes office.
Dorn's proposed changes would keep current standards in place while making the test shorter and more diagnostic. He also intends to use technology to provide quicker turnaround times for test results, noting that Oregon and Wyoming are already doing this.
"When voters listened to what I and my opponent had to say, this (a shorter test with faster results) is what they wanted – not just teachers, but also the public," Dorn says. (Bergson declined Seattle's Child's request to be interviewed for this story.)
Cheryl Chow, a Seattle School Board member and former assistant state superintendent, notes that revisions to the WASL began with Bergeson and her staff. At the Legislature's direction, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) shortened the test, a change that will take effect this spring.
Chow believes Dorn's changes to the WASL may improve students' education. "If Dorn can move the test so that it can be scored more quickly, teachers get results more quickly, then he will make a lot of people happy," she says.
Hunter sees another potential benefit to Dorn's proposed WASL changes. "If the test is better and takes less time, which I absolutely agree with, then Dorn might actually save money, too," he says.
Fresh Faces at a Critical Time
Dorn's experience as a classroom teacher, principal, legislator and union leader will likely help him achieve his goals.
"He's coming in with some level of sophistication and strong relationships with legislators," says Mary Lindquist, president of the Washington Education Association. The state's largest teacher's union endorsed Dorn in November's election after its top choice, Richard Semler, dropped out of the race due to a family illness.
These relationships will be more important than ever as the state Legislature grapples with a funding shortfall. "About 85 percent of the state superintendent's job is political, working with the governor's office and legislators on education issues," Chow says.
Dorn's success will depend on his staff, too. "We're giving a lot of praise to President-elect Obama for bringing together a diverse, intellectually stimulating group for his cabinet," says Lindquist, suggesting that Dorn can do the same. OSPI "now only has relationships with people who support its emphasis on testing," she says, referring to the WASL. One consequence has been frustration among legislators and educators who didn't share Bergeson's perspective.
Dorn says as he hires his staff, he'll seek out people who have experience working with legislators. Dorn also believes that having a better connection to what he calls "the field" – teachers and their classrooms – will bolster his office's reputation as well. For this reason, he plans to hire a current school superintendent and school principal. "This will give us a direct connection to the field, and a direct connection to the Legislature," Dorn says.
Funding Education in Tough Times
Dorn faces the challenge of leading Washington state's educational system through a particularly hard recession. What will it take for him to succeed?
As a state representative, Hunter knows that the tough budget decisions are the responsibility of legislators, not the state superintendent. He expects Dorn to play an important part in the discussion, though: "Dorn will help us with (the state education budget), and if we have to make cuts, he can help us prioritize those. That's the budgetary responsibility of the superintendent."
"It's going to be very difficult," says Lisa Macfarlane, director of the League of Education Voters. Dorn needs to figure out how to keep the interests of kids front and center at a time when education is more important than ever.
Lindquist brings a different perspective to the state's education funding crisis. "Dorn will have to reap a little bit of what his predecessor has sown," she says. "We've squandered some of the good years talking about testing when we should have been looking at how to invest in our schools."
Dorn understands the challenges he faces. As evidence of the seriousness of our state's funding issues, Dorn mentions a pending lawsuit against the state by a coalition of more than 50 school districts, education advocates, parents and teachers, who allege that the state is not meeting its constitutional mandate to fully fund basic education. The case is set to go to trial this month.
Dorn says he's committed to working hand-in-hand with the Legislature to come up with the funding schools need, but acknowledges it won't be an easy task. "I wish I was saying I want to be number one or in the top 10," Dorn says about the state's rank for education funding, "but at the end of my four years, I'd be happy to be 25th in the nation for per pupil funding."
Education's Silver Lining
It's not all bad news for Dorn. Several groups have developed detailed recommendations for improving our schools.
The two-year old Joint Task Force on Basic Education Finance recently released recommendations to better define what "basic education" means, along with proposed changes to how the state funds education. (To read more about them, go towww.leg.wa.gov/joint/committees/bef.)
"With the Task Force's recommendations, we believe there's an opportunity to plan for the future and lay out the architecture," says Macfarlane. She thinks Dorn can start by looking at recommendations that don't carry hefty price tags.
Chow, who sat on the task force, says the report describes what needs to be done, but doesn't identify where the money will come from. While the state superintendent doesn't control the budget, Chow believes Dorn can use his position as a "bully pulpit" to champion recommendations from the report.
Lindquist points to another set of promising recommendations, developed by the Full Funding Coalition that includes the WEA, Washington State School Director's Association and the Public School Employees of Washington, the union representing school bus drivers, janitors, teaching aides and other employees, which Dorn led until recently. (To read more about the coalition's recommendations, go to www.fullfundingcoalition.org.)
"Our proposal is based on research, what fiscal resources we need to provide our students with a 21st-century education" says Lindquist.
Dorn says when looking at these recommendations, "instead of just one basic funding allocation for all students, we need to look at what each student needs to perform at a high level, for a quality education." He also says he will work to identify promising academic programs, expanding them across the state.
"I want schools to be a place of hope and opportunity, of opening doors," Dorn says. He remains committed to improving our schools while helping kids realize that education will improve their lives.
Can he do it? Only time will tell.
Nonetheless, Lindquist predicts, "Randy is in for a rollicking good time."
Denise Gonzalez-Walker is a Seattle freelance writer and mother of two.