Seattle School Board Stays Put

Why voters chose to leave the bums in.

UPDATE: The latest tally shows incumbent Peter Maier slightly trailing challenger Sharon Peaslee. We don’t know yet the outcome of the race, but it’s possible more than one incumbent is going to take a fall for the district’s financial scandal and perceived problems. 

Seattle Public Schools had one of its biggest financial scandals ever this year. And yet, given a choice to throw the bums out, voters mostly decided to keep them in, giving three of the four incumbents re-election victories. Why?

Perhaps because many of the people who vote in down-ballot school-board races—read: parents—know what the larger public doesn’t seem to: Seattle has a good school system.

What, you say? What about the poor oversight that led former program manager Silas Potter to allegedly squander nearly $2 million on his cronies? What about the district’s oft-cited failure to listen to parents? What about its maddening decisions, like shuffling around beloved principals? What about the constant testing now inflicted upon students?

It’s headlines about stories like these that lead those who know little else to summarily dismiss the district. Seattle is such an educated, affluent city, they moan. Why isn’t the district better?

Here’s where we get to the difference between the district as a bureaucracy and the district as a collection of schools, teachers, parents, and students. The bureaucracy can be infuriating. But what that maddening management obscures is that the more important parts of the district are, for the most part, doing well.

Test scores are up, with Seattle students meeting or beating average state scores in grades 3 through 8. And even some schools in less-affluent parts of towns are showing gains. Beacon Hill’s Mercer Middle School, for example, saw 78 percent of its sixth graders pass the state math exam last year—a stunning performance for a school in which 77 percent of the kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. (This is very similar to the pass rate achieved by sixth graders at affluent Eckstein Middle School, where just 22 percent of kids qualify for such meals.)

There’s still a worrying achievement gap, and some schools are better than others (a troubling fact for the new assignment plan that minimizes choice). But there are also more fine schools than you can name, each with a dedicated cadre of parents. Unlike in some cities, the middle class here has not (yet) abandoned the public schools. (For comparison, a recent article on Philadelphia’s “beleaguered” public-school system made its schools sound more like war zones than houses of education.)

In Seattle, somebody had to take the fall for the district’s latest scandal. That may be why board president Steve Sundquist lost his bid for re-election. (His opponent’s union funding didn’t help, either.) Yet, all in all, voters seem to be saying they’d like to leave well enough alone.