One of the hottest races on Seattle’s fall ballot isn't for mayor or city council, but a seat on the Seattle School Board.
At first glance, the District 4 candidates may look a lot alike. Suzanne Dale Estey and Sue Peters are both professional women with kids in the school district. They've each been endorsed by scores of local Democratic leaders. And both candidates say they oppose education reform efforts like charter schools and Teach for America.
But Peters and Dale Estey are quick to draw distinctions between their experience and platforms.
Dale Estey's background is in public affairs and economic development. She said her experience as a lobbyist in Olympia would help the school board make its case for better state funding.
"I know that I will bring skills and relationships that will help Seattle advocate for both a bigger pie for K-12 funding, because our state's funding for K-12 education is pathetic, but also within that pie, a bigger piece of the pie for Seattle," Dale Estey said.
A graduate of Seattle Public Schools, Dale Estey said her time as a student representative on the school board introduced her to problems she said still need to be addressed today.
"It was very foundational for me, and I visited every high school and got a much better understanding of the disparities in this city," she said. "At a very young age I served on a disproportionality task force, which is really what we [refer to now] as the achievement and opportunity gap challenge."
But Peters questioned the value in her opponent's time as a 16-year-old school board representative. "She's talking about things she did 25, 30 years ago. And our school district has obviously changed since then," Peters said. "And so I think it’s all very nice, but it’s not relevant to the current school district situation. My experience with the district is direct, it’s relevant, it’s recent."
Peters pointed to her volunteer work over the past two years on the district’s Superintendent Search Community Focus Group, and the stakeholder task force that helped the district craft its new strategic plan.
"I’m going into my tenth year of experience with the Seattle School District, and during those 10 years I’ve been actively involved in analyzing local and national education policy. I’ve been actively involved in advocating for good policies," Peters said.
Peters, a freelance journalist and education blogger, co-founded Parents Across America, a national education advocacy group that cites among its missions increasing parental involvement in education policy decisions, reducing class sizes, and decreasing the importance placed on standardized testing.
Peters said she petitioned the district not to close schools five years ago, protested the district’s adoption of what both candidates say is a weak math curriculum, and that her blog post about the shortcomings of the district’s Measures of Academic Progress [MAP] test inspired Garfield High School teachers’ boycott of the test this year.
"Which, as you know, drew national attention," Peters said. "And it's very much a part of the national dialogue, which is we have too many tests for our children and we need to pull back on that."
Both candidates have said they are OK with some standardized tests, but oppose excessive testing. They differ, however, on what they consider excessive.
Peters put the MAP test in that category.
Dale Estey said she believes the MAP has its place. "I do believe that you need to measure at key milestones, and that data, if used carefully, can have tremendous value to educators and families and students. And I’ve really enjoyed, as a consumer, watching my son move the needle," she said.
Dale Estey said she embraces the state’s new academic standards called the Common Core as a way to better align curricula across the nation, and a more refined set of standards than those previously in place.
Peters critiqued the Common Core as an unfunded mandate that’s rushing in new standardized tests, setting students up to fail. She said in some areas the new standards are actually less rigorous.
On the subject of the school board they’re hoping to join, Dale Estey said she has a proven track record uniting diverse perspectives. "That is, I think, a skill set that’s sorely needed on a board right now that’s been so divided," she said.
In a recent self-evaluation, board members gave each other low marks for cooperation. But the board tends to vote unanimously, and Peters says she thinks it’s headed in the right direction. "For the past five months [Dale Estey] has talked about how dysfunctional they are, and yet she’s going to have to work with them if she gets elected. So she’s setting up dysfunction," Peters said.
There’s another major difference between the candidates. Dale Estey has raised five times as much money and has the backing of a well-funded political action committee.
This is the first of two stories about the Seattle School Board race. Coming Friday: a look at spending in the race.