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Debate over gender in WA schools chief race

Erin Jones, left, and Chris Reykdal are running for state schools chief in Washington state. Jones has been under fire for her comments on gender curriculum.
Campaign photographs
Erin Jones, left, and Chris Reykdal are running for state schools chief in Washington state. Jones has been under fire for her comments on gender curriculum.

Q. Erin Jones and Chris Reykdal are the two candidates for state schools chief. So let's get to know them. What do you know about Reykdal?

Reykdal is a three-term Democratic state representative from Tumwater.

He’s been a teacher, and he’s vice-chair of the House Education Committee.

Q. And Jones?

Jones is also a former teacher.

She’s also worked at OSPI, the state education department, as an assistant superintendent focusing on policy recommendations regarding student achievement.

Q. One of the big issues that's come up between these candidates is their stance on issues of gender and sexual orientation. How did this enter the discussion?

Beginning next year, a lot of public school students in this state will likely have some new lessons on gender norms.

Some new state learning standards include suggested lessons, like kindergarteners might learn that there are different ways to express gender – so girls can play football, and boys can play with dolls, for instance.

A couple grades later, the state suggests that kids learn that it’s important to be respectful of how someone else expresses their gender – so it’s not OK to tease a transgender classmate.

A conservative group surveyed the candidates for schools chief earlier this year regarding their stance on the new guidelines, and Reykdal said they sounded good to him.

But Jones said she didn’t think it was “developmentally appropriate to talk about gender or sexual orientation with 5-year-olds,” or have elementary students “feel additional pressure to ‘”choose an orientation.’”

That concerned some people who thought it showed that Jones considers sexual orientation a choice.

And that it’s insensitive to trans kids not to allow lessons that might help them be accepted by their peers from an early age.

Q. Apart from the fact that some people find Erin Jones' statements concerning, why do her personal views matter? Would she actually have influence over LGBTQ issues in schools?

Her personal views may or may not matter, depending on the firewall she draws between her opinions and her work.

But some people point to research that shows that young children actually benefit from the kind of lessons that she considers developmentally inappropriate, and wonder whether she’s in-touch with what’s actually recommended.

Q. What impact has this controversy had on the race?

Seattle’s alternative newsweekly the Stranger had endorsed Jones originally, but when they found out about what she’d told the blog, they switched their endorsement to Reykdal.

Equal Rights Washington had also endorsed Jones, and has changed their endorsement, too.

Jones has written open letters to say that she is in fact very dedicated to the rights of LGBTQ people, and that her life and work show that.

Q. What are you going to be watching as the race progresses?

These are both progressive candidates.

Jones is the political outsider, which a lot of people like.

But they both express a lot of dedication to leveling the playing field for children of color and low-income students.

And they’re both concerned about over-testing and education funding.

Jones came in ahead in the primary, but Reykdal has raised more money.

Overall their stances appear to be really similar on the major issues regarding education in this state, from charter schools to diversity and inclusion.

I think it will be interesting to see how these two candidates distinguish themselves from each other over the next two months.

Correction 9/12/16 4:24 pm: An OSPI official said that a department webpage misstated the requirements. The new state learning standards include suggested, but not required, learning outcomes regarding gender and sexual orientation.

Year started with KUOW: 2008