Suzanne Dale Estey (left) and Sue Peters (right). Photos via suzanne4schools.com and suepeters4schoolboard.org

On an overcast Saturday morning in late October, Seattle School Board candidates Suzanne Dale Estey and Sue Peters brought their campaigns to the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford to mingle with voters at the Pancakes for PCOs (precinct committee officers) event, held by the 43rd District Democrats (who endorsed Peters) and the 36th District Democrats (who gave the two candidates a dual endorsement). 

In case you haven't been following the school board race like the PCOs have: this is the contest to watch. Dale Estey and Peters are competing for a spot on the school board for District Four, representing Ballard, Queen Anne, Magnolia, and Belltown. The winner will take the position currently occupied by Michael DeBell, who has served on the school board for the past eight years.

The competition in District Four has been high (and even a bit heated at times, when Dale Estey's independent expenditure group got involved); Dale Estey and Peters came out the primaries nearly neck and neck at 47.02 percent and 42.52 percent, respectively.

The candidates, who both note that they have children in the Seattle School District, agree on a few things: they both believe the current math curriculum needs improvement, neither likes the idea of charter schools or Teach for America, and they believe there should be less focus on testing overall.

To what extent they advocate less standardized testing is where their similarities end, though.

Peters is strongly opposed to top-down testing models, but Dale Estey, an economic consultant and graduate of the Seattle school system, supports the Common Core—an education policy implemented in Washington state in 2011 by State Superintendent Randy Dorn. The Common Core is a state-led initiative that aims to create equal learning expectations across the nation for K–12 students so that everyone receives the same prepartation for college.

She believes this initiative is a way to combat concerns with Seattle's "status quo," where, she points out, only about 50 percent of African-American third graders achieve third grade reading levels, and about 50 percent of Native Americans graduate high school. In this case, Dale Estey said, stardardized testing is necessary to measure key learning milestones.

"I’d say that’s where [Peters] and I diverge a bit," said Dale Estey at the pancake feed, sporting a green track jacket. "I’m excited about the common core; she has significant concerns."

Peters tells PubliCola tests should be classroom-based and written by teachers. As a freelance journalist and blogger focused on education policy, Peters has a long paper trail of posts explaining her opposition to standardized testing, including blog posts for the Seattle Education Blog and articles for the Huffington Post.

She said the Common Core State Standards, which Washington's public schools began adopting in the 2012–2013 school year, have already produced negative results in some states.

"[My concerns with the Common Core] are based on what’s going on elsewhere in the country where they’ve adopted it, and they’ve had devastating results."

(She was unavailable to give examples; but according to FOX News, both New York and Kentucky saw lower test scores under Common Core standards than non-Common Core test scores in the previous years). Additionally, Peters said, designing a new testing system would mean a whole new set of costs. Washington state is expected to adopt a new standardized testing system in the 2014–2015 school year.

Both candidates boast about their endorsements. Dale Estey's include The Seattle Times, state senator and mayoral candidate Ed Murray, the League of Education Voters, King County Executive Dow Constantine, and Michael DeBell; Peters' include The Stranger, the Seattle Education Association (the teachers' union), Seattle Equality Educators, The Network for Public Education, and four of the seven current school board members.

However, when it comes to campaign contributions, Dale Estey is lapping her opponent. The PDC reports Peters' funds at $35,580, while Dale Estey has nearly four times that amount, at $135,065.

Peters' top five contributers include individual donors from a software designer, a public defender in San Francisco, and a small cab company owner ($900 each) to a Seattle retiree ($1500). The King County Labor Council has also donated $900.

An independent expenditure funded by the Chamber and Nick Hanauer among others have poured more than $60,000 into the race on Dale Estey's behalf. Dale Estey's top five include the bogeymen to the union cause, ed reformers such as Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, his wife Connie Ballmer, and Pine Street Group's Matt Griffin, who have each donated $1,800; and philanthropists Sheri and Les Biller, who have donated $900 each.

Additionally, some of these same folks plus the Seattle chamber of commerce along with wealthy investor (and a big donor to last year's charter initiative) Nick Hanauer, have gotten together to form a political committee called Great Seattle Schools and have poured more than $60,000 into independent expenditures against Peters and for Dale Estey.

Despite Peters' criticism that Dale Estey has many large financial backers in the "ed reform" camp who support charter schools and more stringent teacher evaluations, Dale Estey claims she runs a "broad based campaign" with more than 750 donors—more than any other school board candidate in history according, to the state Public Disclosure Commission's web site, and fewer than 5 percent of her donors maxed out at $900.

She also pointed out that about 80 percent of her donors live in Seattle, compared to about 60 percent of Peters' supporters. 

At the pancake feed, both said their first priority would be getting to know their colleagues better—an important move if the board is to overcome what many observers see as crippling dysfunction.

This, according to 43rd District PCO JoAnne McGaw, has been a major ongoing issue. "We as citizens have had a hard time getting a school board we're happy with," she said.

That's hardly surprising, considering the recent history of complaints about the board. A July 2013 Seattle Times article cites voter support swinging between "candidates later judged to be too hands-off, and those who are accused of being too hands-on, straying into micromanagement."

Both candidates said they wanted to find the right balance between the board and the superintendent. Dale Estey said she would work to "mak[e] sure that the superintendent is supported but also pushed on issues like the achievement gap. ...That's where the board's role is, not individualizing which teachers should be hired at which schools and what the windows look like—and they've gone to that level at individual schools."  

Peters has a similar view: "The role of the board is to exercise oversight of the superintendent. But that also means allowing the superintendent to do his or her job and give the superintendent the respect she needs. ...The previous board was cited by the state auditor for failing to exercise oversight of the superintendent in the school district. We don’t want to go back to that negligence."

McGaw, who has two sons who went to Seattle public schools and two grandchildren in the schools today, said she was "very impressed" after talking with Peters. She liked that Peters was "very adamantly against" standardized MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) tests.

Another PCO, Kelsey Getz of the 36th District, said though she hadn't been following the issues in the school board race, she supports Dale Estey, saying she liked Dale Estey's perfect attendance record at the 36th district meetings.

Getz added, "Her plans seem very realistic. ...[She's] not speaking in platitudes."

Besides Dale Estey and Peters, two candidates remain for District Five, representing Capitol Hill, the Central Area, Leschi, Beacon Hill, and downtown. 

District Five's leading candidate Stephan Blanford is an educational policy consultant with a doctorate degree at the University of Washington for Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, and he led the primary elections with 79.29 percent of the votes. His opponent LaCrese Green, a tutor who got some bad press for openly opposing homosexuality, came in a distant second at 12.27 percent. 

Betty Patu is running unopposed for reelection in District Seven, representing Southeast Seattle.

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