"We Can Do Better": Reid Saaris Aims to Revamp Education as State Superintendent

Reid Saaris, an educator and former non-profit leader, discusses his campaign for Superintendent of Public Instruction. He aims to close opportunity gaps, overhaul school funding, guarantee mental health access, and curb social media's impact. Saaris touts his experience and bold reform agenda.

"We Can Do Better": Reid Saaris Aims to Revamp Education as State Superintendent

Reid Saaris, an educator and nonprofit leader, discussed his campaign for Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction in a wide-ranging interview with Hacks & Wonks.

The Superintendent leads the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), which is responsible for implementing education policy, allocating school funding, setting academic standards, and working with the state's 295 school districts. If elected, Saaris would be charged with turning his campaign pledges into reality by working with the legislature to revise education budgets and policies, and partnering with local districts to implement changes in classrooms across Washington. Chris Reykdal is the current Superintendent and incumbent. 

Saaris is running on a platform of enacting major reforms to reverse the state's decline in key educational metrics and close opportunity gaps for underserved students. "Over the last eight years, we fell out of the top set of states in terms of students' ability to read and do math," he said in an interview. "We've fallen steadily on youth mental health to 40th out of 50 states. When it comes to post-secondary opportunities…we're 44th."

To address these issues, Saaris is calling for a significant overhaul of Washington's "particularly inequitable" school funding formula. His analysis found that schools with large low-income populations receive 16% less funding than those serving more affluent communities. "States who do this right actually give 30% more resources in those contexts," he noted.

Saaris also discussed a plan, developed in partnership with Children's Alliance, to guarantee all students access to mental health care, particularly for issues like anxiety and depression. Saaris said the proposal is modeled on a program in Great Britain that has shown evidence of alleviating symptoms in most adolescents for 9 or more years after just 10-12 therapy sessions.

Additionally, Saaris wants Washington to become a national leader in implementing the U.S. Surgeon General's recommendations on youth social media use, including better enforcement of age restrictions and supporting schools that want to implement "phone-free" policies.

Other key proposals that Saaris discussed included:

  • Supporting a “public option” for afterschool and summer childcare programs
  • Expanding student access to challenging curriculum and advanced coursework, where students of color are often "overlooked” and “underestimated"
  • Improving recruitment and retention of educators of color, who currently make up just 12% of the state's teachers
  • Providing free meals to all public school students 

Throughout the interview, Saaris touted his background as a fourth-generation public educator and his experience partnering with school districts to close opportunity gaps. He argued that this track record makes him uniquely qualified to lead the state's education system.

"I look forward to leading us back towards the top of things when it comes to education in our state," Saaris said. 

The nonpartisan primary for Superintendent of Public Instruction will be held on August 6th and the general election will be on November 5th, with the winner taking charge of Washington's schools in January 2025. You can register to vote or update your voter registration online at https://VoteWA.gov.

About the Guest

Reid Saaris

Reid Saaris is a fourth-generation educator in Washington State and has taught history, economics, psychology, philosophy, and Spanish. He recently went back into the classrooms for Seattle Public Schools where his work, and the roadblocks he encountered with OSPI, inspired him to run for office. Reid founded – and led for 10 years – Equal Opportunity Schools, a non-profit that’s moved 100,000+ students up to college-level learning opportunities across 35 states. As CEO, he built a staff of 65 and raised ~$50 million while advising and supporting more than a thousand school, district, and state leaders to ensure students of all backgrounds could access an excellent education in their schools. Reid lives in Renton with his wife and 3 children.

Find more information about Reid Saaris at https://reid4waschools.com/.

Podcast Transcript

[00:00:00] Crystal Fincher: Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm Crystal Fincher, and I'm a political consultant and your host. On this show, we talk with policy wonks and political hacks to gather insight into local politics and policy in Washington state through the lens of those doing the work with behind-the-scenes perspectives on what's happening, why it's happening, and what you can do about it. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast to get the full versions of our Friday week-in-review show and our Tuesday topical show delivered to your podcast feed. If you like us, the most helpful thing you can do is leave a review wherever you listen to Hacks & Wonks. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes.

The Superintendent of Public Instruction is a very important elected position in Washington state, overseeing a budget of over $17 billion and responsible for the education of more than 1 million K-12 students. The Superintendent leads the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, or OSPI, which is the primary agency charged with overseeing public K-12 education in Washington state. Working with the state's 295 public school districts and 6 state tribal education compact schools, OSPI plays a critical role in developing education policy, setting academic standards, and allocating school funding. In this pivotal election year, the race for Superintendent of Public Instruction will shape the future of public education in Washington for years to come. Key issues facing the next superintendent include working with school districts to navigate budgets left chronically underfunded by the State Legislature, closing opportunity gaps for underserved students, improving youth mental health, preparing students for careers in college, retaining teachers amid shortages and burnout, and more.

Today on Hacks & Wonks, we sit down with Reid Saaris, one of the candidates running for Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2024. As a career educator, a nonprofit leader who has partnered with school districts nationwide, Saaris shares his vision for leading Washington schools out of crisis and into the top in academic performance and student well-being. You'll hear his plans for tackling the major challenges in K-12 education and why he believes his experience makes him the right choice to be Washington's next schools' chief.

I am very pleased to be welcoming a candidate for Superintendent of Public Instruction, Reid Saaris - welcome to the program.

[00:02:39] Reid Saaris: Thanks for having me, Crystal.

[00:02:41] Crystal Fincher: Starting off, what made you decide to run?

[00:02:45] Reid Saaris: That's a great question. I'm a fourth-generation Washington public educator, three kids coming up through the school system, and have had a mission throughout my career to close opportunity gaps and make sure the best of what our schools have to offer reaches all kids - based on experiences with my best friend growing up, with my foster sister, and otherwise. And so have been doing that work as a teacher and administrator and national nonprofit founder and CEO all over the country and helping superintendents, state chiefs, governors close gaps, working with the Obama White House. And the thing that brought me into this race was seeing that we have a lot of ground to go still yet on these issues in my home state of Washington. And so I was encouraged by President Obama's Secretary of Education, John King, among others, to jump into this race, seeing that Washington is a bit of a paradox. We have these progressive values, we have a strong economy that's been growing fastest in the nation multiple recent years running, we're committed to facts and evidence - and yet, we're falling behind so many other states. Over the last eight years, we fell out of the top set of states in terms of students' ability to read and do math. We've fallen steadily on youth mental health to 40th out of 50 states. When it comes to post-secondary opportunities - I think there's a story just even a couple weeks ago on things like FAFSA completion and getting kids connected with post-secondary opportunities through those approaches - we're 44th out of 50 states. And everywhere I go and everywhere I talk with, they say - We're Washington and we can do better than this. So I think it's time for a change in leadership and some more significant progress on these issues, including the achievement gap, which has been widening steadily these last eight years as well in Washington.

[00:04:32] Crystal Fincher: So I want to talk about funding. Is Washington fulfilling its paramount duty to fully fund education in our state? And if not, what can you do about that?

[00:04:44] Reid Saaris: Such an important question. So on the funding front, we've made some progress. I think the challenge is we do have a ways to go - our formula is particularly inequitable. The Seattle Times reported that we give 10% less resources to schools with significant populations of low-income students. We did our own analysis, my team, and found on some different data around 16% less resources. And I've gotten to partner with governors and state chiefs who've overhauled their funding formula, and states who do this right actually give 30% more resources in those contexts. So that's one of the challenges I think we face in terms of fulfilling the paramount duty around fully funding public education. We've gotten a lot of coverage also around the funding of basic education versus the funding of buildings and facilities - and so stories that have certainly made the paper, like Wahkiakum and others, where you really have buildings falling apart. I've talked with superintendents and school leaders where - Hey, our building was built at World War II and it hasn't received any updates yet. And so I think that's a big challenge. Even outside my own classroom door this last semester, the ceiling's dripping on me and my students. And you think about that happening in a context like Washington State - it's hard to understand. We do collect the data on the state of school buildings, but I haven't seen yet - I've talked to leaders who've led this work and led key commissions and things focused on this - I haven't yet seen an analysis from OSPI to say how far behind are we on something like the state of our buildings in Washington state? What would it take to get to a more reasonable space there where all of the educators and students can count on things like their roofs to be there for them? And so I think there's a lot of work to do there. We have had some progress in funding for teachers. We've had less progress in funding for paraeducators and classified staff. So I met with paraeducators who say - Hey, it's my job in the school to really help homeless students, but my take-home pay personally is $2,000 a month and my rent is $1,500 a month. So I myself am about to be homeless. I met with classified staff who say they're in tears on a regular basis because they don't have the resources to help address the challenges that they're asked to manage on behalf of students in their districts.

And I think the opportunity for us with this election is to have new leadership rebuild some of the confidence with the Legislature in OSPI's ability to manage these funds. The challenge we've had and part of what motivated me to run was seeing the $3 billion in federal relief money come in during the pandemic - and that was a significant opportunity to invest in our systems, invest in students who've been underserved, to close gaps, do really incredible things. And I got to meet with superintendents all over the state and they had huge unrestricted checks in the third round - they'd already done their HVAC work, they'd done their PPE, they'd done a lot of the sort of COVID-specific work - and this was money focused on things like mental health and academic recovery, some of these issues of equity there. And a lot of them said - We just don't have much guidance about how to use these resources effectively, what things we should be focused on. And so the Legislature did an audit of the use of those funds and asked OSPI which investments were most effective, where the Legislature could put more money. And the answer was that they didn't know, and that they wouldn't collect the data to find out unless forced to do so by the feds. And so we were one of only three states that the federal government audited on those use of funds and cited for mismanagement of those funds. And so the point I'm getting to with regard to your question is to build a new funding formula, which everyone I talk to - teachers, administrators, everywhere - we need a new funding formula. We have this prototypical school model, and I have yet to meet the prototypical school. But to get to the place where we can really think about the future of funding and public education, we need to have better answers than three quarters of the money went to "Other" for the last $3 billion, but give us $3 billion more. And so the Legislature, I think, is certainly open and interested in the possibility of overhauling the funding formula, but I think they would like to see an OSPI that's really managing those funds in a way that's more transparent and more focused on what's going to work best for kids, so that we can lead in a new direction on funding for the future of public education in Washington State.

[00:09:14] Crystal Fincher: We certainly need a new formula, need additional funds. Right now, many school districts are struggling with looming closures of schools amid budget crises, in addition to layoffs of teachers. What role does the Superintendent of Public Instruction have in working with school districts to make that as minimally disruptive as possible and potentially explore other alternatives? How can you work with districts to guide their boards and help parents through this kind of process and disruption?

[00:09:45] Reid Saaris: It's such a great question and school closures often really tear at the fabric of a community. People see their elementary school as the start of their child's relationship with the public school system, kindergarten through fifth grade is this place where they're sending their kids trustingly on a daily basis. They may have sent other siblings prior - maybe something that's a family experience for a long period of time - and so the idea of shutting a lot of those schools down, I think, is really concerning to a lot of parents. And the idea of shutting so many down in Seattle - 20, they're talking about - but these are happening all across the state. And I think that it feels like it's come out of nowhere to some extent. And the comments by state leadership incumbent and others have been - Oh, it was a perfect storm. And to your question about what could this office do or what should they do? I think when you think about a perfect storm coming, part of the role of OSPI is to be at the helm forecasting the weather and say - Where are we headed? Not, whoops, we steered into a perfect storm. And so that, to me, is one where there were lots of signs about what was potentially going to be coming our way with regard to these budget challenges - we have deficits all over the state. Some of those are tied to inflation and cost of services. Some of those are tied to the ending of pandemic funds and the mismanagement of those funds at the state level that we talked about earlier. And so, to me, the promise and possibility of this role is to help both local districts - and I've spent most of my career doing that work, helping superintendents solve the challenges that they face using evidence, using data, using best practices - and also connecting the dots across which districts have solved these sorts of challenges. Because there are a number of districts across the state that saw some of these things coming, and OSPI could have worked with others to say - Hey, here's a variety of pathways to manage this. This is how I've tended to lead in my work with superintendents. You have a challenge. Nobody wants to have a sudden shutdown of a whole bunch of your elementary schools, so if you're forecasting the weather and seeing these sorts of things coming in the data at a state level, then you can start to say to people - Here's a few pathways that some of your peers around the state are using. Here's a district that acted in an early way on these measures to tackle this issue. Here's a district that really pushed forward on the levies front and the bonds and really engaged their community to solve this earlier. And so you can offer sort of a menu of options for leaders - because we do have a lot of local control. We have just over 300 separate systems independent in the state. And so I think the Office of the Superintendent of the Public Instruction can really be helping those folks to see what's coming and to say - Here's a set of options to tackle these things. And I think the thing that's most disturbing to families is - Hey, things were going great financially, things are good. And suddenly we steered off of a cliff here. What's going on? Why would our schools be closing? Why would we be laying people off? Why would this be affecting some communities so differently and inequitably as compared to others? And we don't have to be in that sudden surprise set of closures and things like that. We can see these things ahead of time and offer solutions to avoid those sorts of challenges.

[00:13:02] Crystal Fincher: Several districts are also facing challenges with teacher retention for a variety of reasons - teachers citing increasing challenges in the classroom with administration, but also challenges with cost of living and being able to afford to live near the schools or the districts where they're teaching at. What can you do to better improve teacher retention and also recruitment and professional development across the state?

[00:13:29] Reid Saaris: It's such an important question. I was back in the classroom myself this fall, and so a lot of the data became more vivid to me personally. And I grew up here running around in the forests and up and down the hills and mountains and things like this, and I have a lot of endurance - but after this semester, I was on long-term leave replacement for the semester - I was out of steam. It is a really hard job today in the classroom in Washington State. And that's why we had about 20% educator turnover at the school level in the most recent year the data was available. And looking back in recent history, that's the highest number by far. And I think the challenge that it comes back to is - Yes, we have a large degree of local control. Yes, teachers should absolutely have autonomy to build and design their lessons in ways that are supportive of kids in their context. But we can, like I was talking about doing with superintendents, offer much more support by way of systems that help to address the bigger challenges. And so I think the lack of sustainability in the teaching roles in Washington today come back to a failure of senior-most leaders to build systems to help us address the biggest challenges. And so, to me, one of those - and happy to talk more about this if you want to - but it's absolutely mental health of kids. I mentioned we're 40th out of 50 states when it comes to youth mental health. The most recent data that came out showed about 15% of our adolescents seriously considering suicide this year. And we look at that and just to say to a teacher - Good luck with that. - is not okay. That's not how you solve a problem like that, of that scale in our society, to just say - Good luck. And so I, like many teachers, I had students who were suicidal. I have students who are struggling with these sorts of issues. And as an educator, I may not be trained to solve that or all the other issues that are being put on the classroom doorstep to say just - Good luck in there. And so other states have built systems to support mental health for kids - that's why there's 39 states ahead of us on these issues. States like Colorado, states like Hawaii, Los Angeles County, and others have said - We're going to guarantee access to mental health care for kids who need it, right? We could do those sorts of things here in Washington. I built a plan with The Children's Alliance and folks all around the state to do that sort of thing.

And then, one of the other challenges that is sort of dumped in teachers' lap and you say - Good luck to them. - is really around where kids are academically and the variations coming out of the pandemic. A typical teacher is dealing with six grade levels of reading in their classroom. And so I go in there and I say - Well, and I had this with even my seniors. Some kids are struggling with some of the basics around reading. Others are writing college level work. And so to be able to address that as a teacher requires a little bit of systemic support, not just good luck in their dealing with this. But, as other states have done, as President Biden has recommended - and we haven't yet implemented in Washington state - really focus on tutoring and support. And so the idea of giving paraeducators a raise, I think, is key. And let's help create a system. Let's help them create a system in which kids who are falling behind academically get the support of paraeducators, get the support of tutors to catch up so that it's not just left on the classroom teacher, to say - Good luck helping kids to navigate this sort of challenge. And then one of the other ones that really surprised me and has become a focus of the campaign as well is the lack of systems to help kids make great matches with careers in college after they graduate. And so, again, that was one - when I came into my school context, where they said - Can you help the seniors figure this all out for when they graduate? And I'm thinking - Well, where's the system to do this? - and there's a lot of incredible educators working really hard to make those connections. But again, that's one where systems leadership is going to go really far. Because if the expectation is for a teacher or a counselor, college advisor, career advisor, anybody to go out and figure out every career that exists in our society - how it works, who's best suited for it, how you train for it, how you apply, how you get in. Go out and figure out every higher educational opportunity that exists in our society - how it works, how much it costs, who's a good fit for it, how you gain access. And then once they've learned everything about every educational and career opportunity in society - in their free time - to come back and help advise kids about it is really unrealistic. And so other states like Massachusetts, Colorado, and others have built systems so that educators can advise and support kids, but not take it all on themselves in terms of solving those issues.

[00:18:18] Crystal Fincher: Now you talked about guaranteeing mental health care access for students in schools, which is something that I think most people recognize is so necessary in our schools and that we've seen students themselves call for. Can you talk a little bit more about your plan and especially how to implement that, particularly given the budget challenges that so many districts are having?

[00:18:40] Reid Saaris: Absolutely. And I want to be clear - there's no silver bullets on the mental health issue. But what we did with our plan with Children's Alliance bringing people together all over the state was we said - What sort of things are most effective in the evidence? Where could we gain the most ground, to your point, without having infinite resources? What could we really accomplish? And I think there's a lot of good news there. There's a lot of good news for what we can accomplish. And so the plan that we built really focused on the two biggest drivers of mental health challenges among youth these days - I think it's something like 60, 65% of what's called the burden of disease or the challenges around mental health issues for adolescents in Washington really tie back to anxiety and depression. And for anxiety and depression, there are evidence-based strategies. Great Britain has done these nationwide, consistently, I talked with the leaders who built the systems there, and they find that their set of therapy across 10 to 12 sessions is actually going to alleviate the symptoms of anxiety and depression in most adolescents for 9 or more years. And so, again, it's not a silver bullet, I don't want to overstate it. But the idea that - hey, we can help people build strategies around these sorts of challenges. We know how that's working in other states and other countries. We can do that here. There are pockets of our state that are doing that, I think is really powerful. And so the access to care is a big part of that. Evidence-based practices are a big part of that. And what we did in this paper is we went around, we said - Hey, the four main barriers where people are dropping off in their journey to care, what are some of the things that are most promising happening around the state? Who's solving the care-seeking challenge? Maybe they're offering universal screening or other approaches to help kids, brief interventions to help with more minor issues before they become more severe - so we profile some of those examples. And then what does it cost them? What would it cost us to do that statewide? When it comes to sort of access to care, there's some really innovative things happening around both individual telemedicine, sure, and then also group-based care - happening in Tacoma Public Schools, ESD 113 - where kids are actually in community with each other chatting about these challenges and that's helping to deal with what the Surgeon General talks about around the epidemic of loneliness. Hey, I share this challenge with other people. So I think it's building those pieces together, helping districts and regions see how they can address those things, and doing it in a way - to your point - that's affordable.

And then a couple last points I would add on this - there's a lot we can do on the prevention side as well. And again, it just takes a little bit of bringing people together around the evidence and setting a strategy. And everywhere I went on this issue, working on this project with Children's Alliance, I heard the same thing. People said - Thank you for bringing us together around this evidence to set a strategy. And I was thinking it had been years since this was declared a state of emergency for our youth, so what is the state school's chief and OSPI and others doing if we don't have people coming together looking at evidence and setting a strategy around this? And on the prevention side, I think our state should be at the lead of implementing the U.S. Surgeon General's guidance on youth mental health and social media. We haven't taken it up at all yet. And the Surgeon General talks about things like enforcing the existing age restrictions on access to social media - age 13. My son, at different points in his education, has been given a laptop, a wireless connection, and access to everything that the internet has to offer - and often by the school system. And so how do you help people to engage those issues that the Surgeon General's guiding us on? And then supporting schools and communities that want to try going phone-free? There have been really cool things happening on that front. I just had a locker at the door of my classroom where kids could lock up their phone so that they didn't have the distraction of it - they had the key themselves, they could pull it out anytime they needed it. But it was a little bit of a separation to say - Let's focus on each other for this hour. Let's have this conversation together. And then on the lighter side, but still really evidence-based and impactful - and it's got my own kids out campaigning for me on the playground - is I think we should expand recess. We have so much time devoted to devices and these algorithms that are trying to pull our kids into a virtual world. I think it's time to give them more space and playtime in the real world with each other - building those relationships, building some of the skills to navigate the world as we face it today.

[00:23:19] Crystal Fincher: Well, continuing to focus on students and our school system not serving students from all backgrounds equally or well - you've talked a lot about closing the opportunity gap before. What specific strategies and tactics would you implement, or are needed, to close the opportunity gap, particularly for Black and brown students in our schools?

[00:23:46] Reid Saaris: It's a great question, and I've focused a lot of my career on this topic. I think there are several things that we can and should do - one of which is the funding, one that you brought up earlier. And so I think a really close look at the data and how that plays out. One of the things that's often left out of those analyses that are published by OSPI is actually the true set of resources going into a school. Often - it's kind of an esoteric inside analysis here - but often they're not accounting for the actual cost of teachers in a given building, and newer teachers are paid less often as compared to more veteran teachers. And so I think we need a true accounting of the expenditure breakdown by race within and across districts, because if you're looking at resource inequities at the very basic level of dollars - that's a big challenge. I spent a lot of my career - put out a book about it this fall - on access to challenging curriculum. I think that's an area where, particularly Black and brown students have often been overlooked, underestimated, and we say - Hey, this is a great class for you, and have fun in there. - and we're not sort of necessarily as a school system pushing to provide the highest-level learning opportunities for kids of all backgrounds. So I spent a lot of time on that issue, and I think it's really powerful and offers a lot of possibilities for kids to simply think about - what are the opportunities within a school building that exists, and who gets access to what, and how do we change that? So I've done a lot of work with more than a thousand school and district leaders closing gaps in access to challenging courses and rigorous learning opportunities that already exist within buildings, and I think there's a lot more that we can do with that here. I think part of the sort of most challenging part of how equity has been approached in some places, and in some cases these last years, has been a notion of - I'm starting to understand the differential challenges that some students may face. And the conclusion that I don't agree with is - Therefore, I really don't want to push them very much academically. I don't want to make more hurdles for them when it comes to learning. I want to make it easy on certain kids. - because I'm starting to understand what they've been through, or some people are starting to understand in new ways what kids have been through or some of the differential challenges. And I think that's not what families want, I think that's not what kids want. I think school is the opportunity to stretch our brains. I had lots of discussions about this with some of my own students this last semester, we talked about - Hey, this is an opportunity to stretch our horizons, stretch our thinking, to push ourselves to the next level in terms of how we're approaching school, not necessarily to give out free A's or to pass kids along or to try to boost high school graduation rates by saying, Well, you didn't really get it, but you got it. I think kids of all backgrounds can be really successful in school at the highest levels, and our failure to provide those opportunities is really at the heart of some of the difficulties I think we face on some of these issues to this day.

One more that came to mind is the diversity of educators and the diversity of the teaching force. And so that's one that is high impact in terms of its effect on kids - to have a more diverse workforce in schools. And it's one that's at the top of the list when you talk to community about their priorities for changes and progress in schools. And so I think that's a really good one for us to spend some more time on. It's around 88% last I looked - white educators in a state that's majority students of color. And there are really effective ways to close those gaps in teacher diversity and to think about building a more diverse workforce that's sustainable - where teachers of all backgrounds are included and feel empowered to lead in the classroom. And I was pretty disappointed to see that we didn't have significant focus with our pandemic relief dollars or otherwise, and we don't really have a strategy for closing those gaps on a statewide basis yet.

[00:27:52] Crystal Fincher: So what is an effective strategy to close those gaps and attract a more diverse workforce?

[00:27:59] Reid Saaris: That's a great question. So I spent time talking with a lot of the experts in the field on this, and there's a variety of approaches. A lot of them relate to cohort models and a really focused set of programs so that new educators don't feel isolated and alone. There are some analogies to the work we did with students and closing gaps in access to advanced courses. And I think often what happens is people do a little bit of work on these issues, instead of really a push to broadly close a gap. And if you don't have a push through to broadly close the gap, you're not probably changing the culture. You're not probably changing the sense of belonging in the school. So investing in cohort models that support new educators coming into the field together, getting to work with one another, talk about some of these issues openly, collecting data from teachers, disaggregating that data, and understanding some of the differential experiences that are happening, I think, is a big part of this. And then there are also really powerful ways to think about pathways for others, like paraeducators, in our system to become teachers in the classroom - should they want to do that. And instead of the old model, which says - You may need to take a year off of work without any pay, and go back to school, and maybe two years, and maybe this, that and the other. And then eventually you could become a teacher. I've seen some really exciting models that are really built into the professional development as a part of the job for people to be able to build those certifications and gain access to teacher credentials. I also found even at a personal level that navigating the teacher certification and credentialing system in Washington through OSPI is very difficult. I've been certified and taught in several other states so far. And on paper, my certification should have transferred right over, but it took an extremely long time to navigate that process. So I think we need a little bit smoother of a process for educators, a multiplicity of options - whether people do want to focus on a cohort and really immerse themselves in this work in pathways that span a year or two, or longer-term paraeducator pathways that are integrated to part of the job. But overall, it comes back to leadership and a push to support closing these gaps by understanding what teachers are experiencing and dynamically working with local and state leaders to address those challenges and open up the incredible opportunity of education more broadly than it's been opened up here before.

[00:30:20] Crystal Fincher: Should we be opening up more charter schools? And what's the appropriate role of charter schools in the public school system?

[00:30:29] Reid Saaris: Great question. So I don't think charter schools are the solution for students in Washington State. We had a huge battle about this in recent years and voters approved a limited initiative, the Supreme Court weighed in, the Legislature got involved again. And so we've been through a big fight on this, and we have a law. Last I looked, there's about 18 charter schools - less than half of a percent of the population in Washington State. And so the State Superintendent does sit on the Charter Commission, and I would want to ensure that students in those systems are getting what they need. And I think our focus needs to be on traditional public schools, which offer the best promise of everybody having access to an excellent education - and focusing there, I think we can do incredible things to close gaps.

[00:31:17] Crystal Fincher: What's your position on school vouchers, which have been talked about in some corners of the state here in Washington? Are those helpful? Should they be implemented?

[00:31:30] Reid Saaris: I don't think those are helpful or should be implemented. They tend to drain resources from the public school system to private actors. And there's lots of research about this - often the users of those vouchers are people who are already in private schools. So it's literally taking somebody in a private school and saying - Now we're going to take some money from the public school and give that to you. And I don't see how that is helpful or makes sense - for our students, for our educators - as we work to rebuild one of the best school systems, public school systems in the country. And I think it's a distraction, I think it's dangerous, and I think what we need to focus on is systems that reach all students.

[00:32:10] Crystal Fincher: Do we still have challenges with the digital divide between students in different areas in this state, or even within the same district in this state? And what can you do to address that?

[00:32:22] Reid Saaris: That's a great question. I was concerned early on in the pandemic when the digital divide was used in part as a reason not to offer online schooling to kids. I think as a state, we have a lot of both direct public resources and we have a lot of companies who've made pledges to help close the digital divide. And I think an opportunity would have been to ask those folks to step up and ensure that every kid had a strong internet connection, that every kid had access to a device to connect with their teachers and keep connected with their classmates during the pandemic. We've made a lot of ground and covered a lot of ground when it comes to broadband connectivity at the school level. And so that's a really exciting story, I think, over the last 10 plus years - to get the school level connectivity in place. And then when it comes to connectivity at home, we have some good programs, but there's still definitely some ground to be covered.

I think one of my biggest concerns today with the digital divide is the lack of access to training, support, insight, education for kids about what's going on online and empowering them to make informed decisions - not being taken advantage of by companies and algorithms designed to addict us and pull us deeper into cyberspace. And so that's one, to me - I mentioned earlier the Surgeon General's advisory on youth mental health and social media - I taught that explicitly with my students. I think we should have consistent access to training and support to help kids figure out how to navigate this space. In the Surgeon General's guidance, he suggests even considering raising the social media account creation age to 16 years old. And if we did that, we have experience with things around age 16 in our school system when we say - Hey, you're now of age where you can use this powerful, but also potentially pretty dangerous, tool. And we're going to teach you how it works. We're going to support your gradual release into that - we'll give you a permit before we give you a license and driver's ed. But these sorts of things to say - Hey, this is an educational challenge, but it's an educational opportunity because we know how to help people that navigate those sorts of things at age-appropriate times in our state and in our country. And so I think we should be doing that when it comes to cell phones and social media - because I think our kids can make great choices - but absent information about what's going on, about what the purpose of some of these platforms and systems are, about the interests of advertisers as compared to your own personal interests, those are things that are just such rich educational topics to talk about. And I've been disappointed to see that so few students have systematic access to that sort of insight and education and understanding in their schools, and I think we could do better there to empower them to make good decisions and choices without - it's a little bit of the deck being stacked against them when you have trillion-dollar industries devoting all of their resources to capturing an adolescent's attention - and so we need to mobilize our resources as a system to support kids in navigating that. I like to imagine, for example, even just middle school - my son's going to start in the fall - and what would it mean if middle school was not taken over by cell phones and social media? This age between 13 and 16 that a lot of the research suggests is not the prime time for kids to be on these devices in school. And what if that was a time - yeah, where there was just more play, where kids were walking the halls making more eye contact, where at lunch it was conversation and it was a return to laughter and engagement instead of allowing just total free reign by these companies to advertise and grab the attention of our kids. So that's one of the areas that I'm especially concerned when it comes to what's going on digitally for our kids.

[00:36:12] Crystal Fincher: A lot of teachers and districts are struggling with the approach to AI - how to deal with it as a district, how to prevent it from inhibiting learning, but also keeping kids prepared for the world that is today. What do you think is the appropriate approach to handling AI in the classroom and use by students? And how can you work with districts to work through that challenge?

[00:36:41] Reid Saaris: It's a great question. And it's an emerging space, so obviously we're going to have to keep developing our thinking as the technology continues to evolve. I think one of the things that I found as a classroom teacher myself was I had to be creative about how to approach the issue of independent thinking and critical thinking with kids. Because historically, you say - Hey, I want you to go home and I want you to write an essay on this and tell me, do some analysis of these sources, and advance your own view on this. And some students do that. Others come back with something that they're not able to speak to, or explain the thinking in the essay that they've turned in. And so I think that's both a challenge and an opportunity. I have a friend who teaches community college and he went in with his kids and said - Let's hop on ChatGPT, and set up our accounts, and take it for a spin, and have a college level discussion about what this technology can do, what we might want it to do for us, what we might be giving up if we have it do other things for us, and a lot about appropriate usage. And I think that's always going to be a part of the solution when it comes to schools - is education around how these things work and open discussion and discourse about it. I think one of the things that really concerned me - I talked to some of the folks working on the OSPI strategy around AI, and I brought up this challenge of how do I ensure my kids are empowered with independent and critical thinking, which is so important in today's world. And I said - Maybe they can do some in-class essay writing, and I've been trying that. Or debates and discussions that happen live so it's not just a written thing that's produced at home. And I was sort of exploring, as an educator - how do I help my kids to be independent thinkers in this world? And the answer was - We don't need kids to do that anymore - which I was just absolutely floored by, thinking that we don't need to worry about that. I think we need to think about that more than ever. And that is an area where I would love OSPI to be collaborating closely with teachers, leaders in their respective disciplines - thinking about what does the new age look like around ensuring that kids are getting access to independent and critical thinking, because that's core to our democracy. That's core to people's empowerment to lead rich lives - is to have an ability to develop their own thinking. And I think everybody does, but if we're putting these things in and saying - You don't need to do that in school, you don't need to do that when you're relaxing with your phone and your phone is taking you to these places, you don't need to sort of exert your own will on it - that's sort of putting the power in the hands of others outside of our control. And so, I think it's critical that we think about this question of ensuring still that schools are really tightly focused on developing independent thinking skills among our kids.

[00:39:28] Crystal Fincher: Should we be providing free lunch to kids at all of our schools?

[00:39:32] Reid Saaris: It's a great question. I think free meals are important. I think it's a good idea to do. And I would go a bit further to say that we need to be providing better meals to kids in our schools. I visited a school a month or so ago and met with educators, and they brought me two of the school lunches and presented them and said - For somebody who wants to be the State Superintendent, I would challenge you to eat the food that we're serving kids in our school. And they said a lot of the kids who are hungry can't even stomach what we're serving in some cases. And to me, that's unacceptable in a state like ours, in a day like today. So I've built plans - a little bit of a policy nerd on some of this stuff, I have a team working on policy plans in a wide variety of areas - and that's one where there are models, the FoodCorps and others, that really say - How do we empower folks in the cafeteria who are creating our meals with access to the fresher ingredients, culturally relevant food? How do we think about doing that? And the thing that was exciting and inspiring to me is - talking with some of the experts about how this is happening in pockets around the country - is it doesn't end up actually necessarily costing more. It just takes a little bit more advanced planning, strategy, resourcing, and empowering folks in the kitchen to do this sort of work. And so I would love to see us go further than thinking about just giving away meals that aren't being eaten by kids. And frankly, detract often from their energy and ability to focus in class. And there's a big crash often in energy following lunch. And so I often would go and buy food to have in the classroom so kids can access more things like fresh fruits and things like this. And I found it actually changed the classroom culture tremendously and brought out a lot of energy for kids to have access to food - and they ate it faster than I ever could imagine, I should have known with teenagers. So I think we need to do more than just giving away meals. We need to have great meals that kids have access to that are supporting their energy, their physical health, and their mental health in ways that are culturally relevant - and those things are doable.

[00:41:43] Crystal Fincher: Now, again, unfortunately, we're having the conversation about potentially closing schools in many districts, including in Seattle and others. That opens up a conversation about the use of school property and opportunities there - and maybe an opportunity to think more expansively and creatively. There are some districts who have partnered with childcare providers - and that's a major challenge facing both students, families, and teachers. Are there opportunities to expand the uses of our school buildings - perhaps help them to stay open that way - and to become a better asset for families in the community by providing services like childcare?

[00:42:30] Reid Saaris: Yes, absolutely. I love that question. And it's one of the policy areas that again, I get a little nerdy with my team and figure out what we could do. And I would love to have us build, as some districts have in Washington, a public option for aftercare and for summer care for kids. When you say - Hey, you're registering for school. I know school lets out at 2.30 or 3 o'clock and most working parents are not necessarily available then. So I want to create - and it doesn't have to be run by the school - it can be run by clubs, to your point, coming together on school campuses where kids are attending school, or even on other campuses if we're closing down schools and opening up space for those uses. And so we started to build a financial model to say - what would it mean to sort of start to coordinate a little bit more with those providers and address those challenges? Because when I first became a parent, I had colleagues at work who - they had these spreadsheets and they're like, This week, they're going to be with the grandparents. This week, there's a summer camp. And I was just like, Wow, in today's society, you have to sort of piece together, spend a lot of money, or have a lot of family support accessible to you to just get through the summer when you have a job. And so that, to me, is an area where we could be really innovative and creative about building support. And then I think there's also innovative things we talked earlier about the teacher pathways and things like this - having high school seniors start to earn some things around education credentials - you can have them supporting to do more pre-K, to do more childcare and things like this in ways that are aligned with their passions and interests and that support some of the shortages that we have in that field. Ultimately, I'd like us to continue to make much more significant investments, both at the state level and nationally, in childcare. I think it's a right that folks should have access to that sort of support, and it would help everybody to thrive in a really powerful way. Obviously, it costs significant money, and so we need to continue to expand and become more progressive in our taxation in Washington and support policies to move in that direction.

[00:44:36] Crystal Fincher: So as we close today and many voters are trying to figure out who they're going to support and why, what do you tell voters is the difference between you and your opponents and why they should support you?

[00:44:49] Reid Saaris: Sure, that's a great question. So I'm a career educator, not a career politician. I think this office was made nonpartisan for a reason, and my two other main opponents are very strongly partisan. I don't think that you get the change that you need in our schools by sitting in Olympia and cogitating on what might work and trying to pass a policy there, and then expecting over 300 independent systems to pick up the ball and implement those sorts of changes. So as a fourth-generation public educator, someone who spent my entire career in this space, I would say that I'm best positioned to help both at the local district level to solve these challenges - because that's where the rubber meets the road in closing gaps for kids, ensuring access to mental health care, ensuring access to tutoring support, to great post-secondary pathways. There is no magic policy to pass at Olympia to get those things done, and I've spent my career - and I'm proud to have the endorsements of lots of superintendents, superintendents of the year, principals, teachers, and others who know me as somebody who shows up and helps them as a partner to close those gaps, and I think that's what we need now. And then, I think I'm also the right person to rebuild the confidence in OSPI's ability to manage - it's our largest shared project in the state - it's over $17 billion a year, more than a million kids, and it's our largest shared undertaking. And I think it's time for fresh legs to say - Hey, what can we do with this largest shared project? What aligns with our values? What's worthy of the resources that we have as a state? And what do our kids, what do our families, what do our educators need and deserve and how do we get there? And let's build those plans together and make sure that they get executed on, because we can do better than we've been doing with these declines and coming into the back of the pack with a lot of other states, closing tons of schools, and things like this. And so I look forward to leading us back towards the top of things when it comes to education in our state.

[00:46:42] Crystal Fincher: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to share with us today. We will certainly be following this race eagerly and wish you the best.

[00:46:51] Reid Saaris: Thank you for taking the time and attention to it - it's really a pleasure, Crystal.

[00:46:54] Crystal Fincher: Thank you for listening to Hacks & Wonks, which is produced by Shannon Cheng. You can follow Hacks & Wonks on Twitter @HacksWonks. You can catch Hacks & Wonks on every podcast service and app - just type "Hacks and Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to get the full versions of our Friday week-in-review shows and our Tuesday topical show delivered to your podcast feed. If you like us, leave a review wherever you listen. You can also get a full transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced in the show at officialhacksandwonks.com and in the podcast episode notes.

Thanks for tuning in - talk to you next time.