“What does the Seattle School Board do exactly?” two Seattle teacher friends of mine asked. “Who should we vote for?”
Welcome to what should be the least sexy race in the election mix but is shaking out to be one of the most hotly contested: Two contenders vying for an unpaid, part-time position representing District IV (Phinney Ridge, Ballard, Queen Anne, Magnolia).
School board? That’s like the PTA for the entire school district, right?
Like school PTA boards, the Seattle School Board brings the community voice to the table on education matters. But the job is bigger than that. The ongoing duties of the school board include hiring and evaluating a superintendent, developing and balancing a budget, establishing policies for district governance, adopting instructional materials, maintaining fiduciary and legal responsibility for the District and representing the community.
This year and beyond, the School Board will also have to grapple with funding, capacity issues, implementation of a new strategic plan and new district boundaries, as well as successful implementation of the state-mandated Common Core standards. There’s been high turnover in key district leadership roles and ongoing public mistrust in both the Board and the District.
Though the job has grass roots, it also requires the ability to see the forest and the trees.
On the face of it, Sue Peters and Suzanne Dale Estey, the two opposing District IV school board candidates, have much in common. Peters, a resident of Queen Anne, is 47. Dale Estey, who lives in Magnolia, is 43. Both are Caucasian and married, with working husbands and school-aged children. Neither claims to be independently wealthy. If elected, both candidates and their husbands say they will have to juggle work, family and school board responsibilities. They are willing to do so because they believe in the importance of this mission.
But the similarities stop there.
In their campaign strategies and styles, fundraising and fundamental views on education, these candidates represent distinct camps.
Sue Peters, a former journalist and self-proclaimed school advocate, has been endorsed by anti-education-reform activist Diane Ravitch, currently on a book tour with Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools. She is unabashedly and unapologetically against what she refers to as corporate education reform.
Dale Estey, a consultant with economic development and public affairs expertise and a background working on education policy at multiple levels of government, claims a less fixed position on education matters. She has benefited from corporate support for her campaign.
Their hotly contested race is, arguably, a microcosm of the current national debate on education, which pits education reformers — many corporate-backed — against those who worry about the impact of reforms on teachers and the impact of poverty on students.
Though I had interviewed them, read their campaign literature, heard them debate and watched them stump, I wanted the opportunity to dig deeper into the education psyches of Sue Peters and Suzanne Dale Estey, so I spent the weekend of October 19-20 shadowing each of them.
Saturday with Sue Peters: Passion, compassion, persistence, facts
Sue Peters scares people, but when you meet her, it's hard to imagine why. She’s got the funky, urbane look of the San Francisco resident she once was, and a smooth, melodious voice. She quotes Hemingway in an unpretentious way.
For years I’d read Peters’ writings on the sometimes shrill Seattle Education Blog and heard stories about her from Queen Anne friends. I'd seen her website, in which her views and education-related experience are carefully laid out, and I’d followed the advocacy of the Seattle Math Coalition, a group she helped form.
Still, I’d never actually met her (our previous interview was via telephone) until a pancake breakfast and training session for Democratic Precinct Committee Officers of Seattle’s 36th and 43rd Legislative Districts.
This event was the essence of grassroots politics, held downstairs at Wallingford’s Good Shepherd Center. Suzanne Dale Estey was there too, along with Ed Murray, Richard Conlin and advocates for gun responsibility and other campaign issues. But my focus was on Sue Peters, who received the sole endorsement of the 43rd precinct and a dual endorsement, with Dale Estey, from the 36th.
I recognized Peters’ campaign manager, Kathy Smith, because we had both volunteered as tutors at our children’s middle school. Smith's activism started, she told me, as a result of working with disadvantaged students at the height of the recession. She saw Seattle Public Schools (SPS) cut funding for student support services, while increasing administrative staff.
“I think corporate interests have too much influence,” she told me. “Teachers are overburdened and no one is coordinating the Federal, State and District requirements placed on them.”
Why support Peters? I asked her.
“Sue is strong and courageous,” Smith said.
“Is she open-minded? “ I asked.
“She is knowledgeable and strategic,” she replied.
Just the facts
Citing her past experience as a journalist, Peters likes to talk about “facts.” At the breakfast, once she started working the room, someone asked her about charter schools.
“The facts don’t support them,” she says, referring to their efficacy.
When I asked what she meant by her frequently used term “corporate education reform,” Peters once again referred to the facts.
“Many of these reforms just don't work.” Peters is critical of funders, such as the Gates Foundation, trying out new reforms and then pulling money out of unsuccessful projects, leaving schools high and dry. She felt so strongly about this, she wrote a letter to Bill Gates.
“[Corporate investment] shouldn’t dictate policy and cut out parents and teachers. The money comes with strings. I don’t think the District properly analyzes corporate reforms before accepting them. Education reform should be a neutral term.”
Peters and her husband Gregg Williams, an analyst for Expedia, have a ninth-grader and a fourth-grader, both of whom are in the District’s Accelerated Progress Program (APP) program.
SPS’s APP community has been organized and outspoken, in part because advanced learning policy has been in disarray, and APP programs have been moved repeatedly. The growth in APP has led to capacity challenges. The current proposed changes to school enrollment boundaries significantly impact APP families.
If elected, would Peters be able to take off her APP hat to serve the interests of all 50,000 of Seattle’s public school students?
She tells me she parts company with the APP community on certain issues, including the establishment of APP-only schools at the site of Wilson-Pacific school, current home to the American Indian Heritage program.
“SPS has a history of zero-sum solutions, pitting one group of students against another,” she explains. “I am against this.”
The APP program has been growing steadily, but SPS could not tell me by how much. On its website, SPS reports that it receives nearly 5,000 applications for advanced learning programs each year.
To alleviate APP overcrowding, Peters favors strengthening other advanced learning programs, such as Spectrum, all over the city and increasing the number of high schools (currently three out of 12) that offer the rigorous International Baccalaureate diploma program.
Follow the money?
Peters has challenged Dale Estey’s aggressive fundraising and the fact that she has some paid campaign staff and has hired longtime political strategist Christian Sinderman, once characterized as "the state's hottest political consultant," as her campaign consultant.
“Why has so much money been poured into what is supposed to be a grassroots campaign?” wonders Peters. “Why are Suzanne’s advocates so committed to buying her race?
Maybe because the populist Peters scares people, I suggest.
She’s stalwartly against charter schools, calls the implementation of the new Common Core State Standards an “unfunded mandate,” is critical of standardized tests and has an abrasive reputation.
“Why don't my critics take the time to meet me?” she retorts. “I’ve worked on two task forces and have received good endorsements from my fellow task force members. When you meet someone, it’s not abstract. You have to find a way to work together."
Peters asserts that she can be open-minded.
“My views are based on research and facts. They evolve.”
Sunday with Suzanne Dale Estey: Commitment, focus, balance, history
On Sunday morning, I gathered at Grateful Bread Baking Company and Cafe with Suzanne Dale Estey and a group of volunteers, who were planning to go “doorbelling” in Seattle’s View Ridge neighborhood, not far from where Dale Estey grew up.
She’s proud of her longstanding ties to Seattle — she’s a graduate of Seattle public schools, the daughter of a Seattle schoolteacher and PTA leader, and a former student representative to the Seattle School Board.
As if on cue, a woman with a small child approaches Dale Estey in the cafe. “I don’t know if you remember me, but we went to high school together,” she says. “You have my vote and my parents’ vote, too.” Dale Estey makes the connection and then bends down to speak to the women’s daughter, now attending the same elementary school Dale Estey once had.
Dale Estey enjoys doorbelling, which she says is one of her favorite campaigning methods.
“Data shows that if someone looks you in the eye, they are much more likely to vote for you,” she tells her volunteers during the pre-doorbelling strategy session.
With printouts from the “Voter Builder” database spread out on the table before them, Dale Estey reviews the column that shows each resident’s voter history. The plan for this non-partisan race is to target the likeliest voters; those who have voted in the last four elections. Northeast Seattle has the highest voter turnout in the city.
“1,000 voters will be touched today,” Dale Estey says. “I’m all about efficiency.”
If Peters comes across as urbane, Dale Estey, dressed in running shoes and a warm-up jacket in Roosevelt High School (her alma mater) green, is reminiscent of Senator Patty Murray during her “mom in tennis shoes” phase.
A campaign workhorse, Dale Estey, often accompanied by her husband Mike Estey, a manager with the Seattle Department of Transportation, and their two young sons, is everywhere. This morning she was supposed to go for a run with campaign supporters, then spend the day ringing doorbells, before heading out to an evening fundraiser.
She admits that she skipped the run. “I had to let go of something, and the second shower was it.”
Dale Estey’s website is much like the careful, low-key candidate herself.
Her stances are measured and non-controversial. She wants academic excellence for all, adequate school funding and fiscal responsibility, and strong community partnerships. She wants the focus kept on what’s best for kids.
In person, she breaks loose a little bit when describing the differences between herself and Peters.
First and foremost, she’s proud of her Seattle roots.
“I know this community,” she says, as we roam the manicured neighborhood of Halloween-decorated houses. Not many people are home, making me wonder whether 1,000 voters will indeed be touched today.
“Hi, I’m Suzanne,” Dale Estey offers, whenever someone answers the door. They seem genuinely glad to see her. They look her in the eye.
“I’m collaborative, not divisive,” Dale Estey says archly. “That’s an issue in this race. I’ve formed relationships with an array of people. I understand advocacy. I will add value to the School Board.”
Dale Estey says she has a stronger commitment to academic rigor than her opponent. “I’m a strong supporter of the Common Core standards,” she says. “Sue originally went on record [with The Stranger] opposing them. Now, she’s backing away from that position.”
Dale Estey also wants to raise the quality of schools in every neighborhood. "There are no Level 5 [highest ranked] schools in Southeast Seattle,” she says.
A mind of her own
Dale Estey acknowledges that she has raised an unprecedented amount of money for a school board race.
“There are lots of people who are fed up with the status quo and see me as a vehicle for change. I’m not going to argue with that passion.”
But she denies that she is in the pocket of her corporate backers, citing her opposition to charter schools, which many of them support, as an example.
“We need more funding for schools, so I oppose diverting money away towards charters. However, I support amping up the innovations currently underway in our schools.”
Seattle Pacific University professor Thomas Alsbury, who has conducted extensive research on school boards, superintendents, school-district governance and reform, says Dale Estey’s fundraising is not cause for alarm.
“The research indicates that most board members receive meager funding, mostly from friends," he explains. "Races in urban areas are more influenced by larger sums. The primary question comes from what influence the funding may purchase. School board members report that they do not let funders influence their decision- making, once on the Board, and there is little evidence to suggest the contrary.
“The research shows that in urban centers, school board members are primarily influenced by the superintendent, the public (their constituency), and the teacher unions; not individual campaign contributors or special interest entitie,” Alsbury says.
Dale Estey also defends her decision to hire campaign workers and a consultant.
“This is a city-wide race. I need to communicate with 230,000 voters. I’m not an expert, but there are people who are.”
If elected, she would follow a similar strategy — relying on the expertise of others. But she’s quick to add that she has her own opinions and does not blindly follow.
“I like to listen to a diverse array of voices. But I tend to listen more to people who focus on solutions,” she says.
What about some of the aggressive campaign tactics some of her supporters have used, such as filing a public records request to obtain Peters’ emails to SPS staff?
“I’m humbled by their enthusiasm, but disappointed by their tactics,” she says.
Macro vs. micro?
Dale Estey says she prefers to take a “macro” perspective on issues, a welcome relief to those who feel that some current and past school board members have been guilty of micromanaging SPS.
Peters says the role of the school board is to diligently represent the community, provide oversight of the superintendent, maintaining respect for him and helping him to succeed. She also cites the need to find the balance between diligence and respect and to make decisions based on facts.
In the end, it comes down to a choice between a grassroots activist with passion and insider knowledge versus a politically savvy policy wonk, who takes a broad-brush approach to the issues, but listens to constituents and experts.
Alison Krupnick is ParentMap's education editor and the author of the book Ruminations from the Minivan: musings from a world grown large, then small and the blog Slice of Mid-Life.