Teacher and founder of national education nonprofit enters race for Washington schools chief

Reid Saaris created Equal Opportunity Schools to eliminate barriers that students of color and low-income students face in education, an approach he plans to pursue if elected.

By: - August 15, 2023 4:28 pm

Reid Saaris, 2024 candidate for Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction. He is also founder of Equal Opportunity Schools in Seattle. (Courtesy of Reid Saaris campaign)

Reid Saaris, an educator and founder of a national nonprofit devoted to eliminating barriers in education for students of all backgrounds, wants to be the next leader of Washington’s public school system.

Saaris is campaigning to unseat Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal, who he said has failed to effectively use billions of dollars in federal pandemic aid to address students’ declining literacy and rising mental health challenges.

“I have seen how education can change everything for people. It is an incredible positive force,” Saaris said in an interview Tuesday. 

But there are gaps through which students are continuing to slip through due to the current superintendent’s decisions and actions, he said.

“It is really troubling,” he said. “My work has been in closing the gaps … to make sure the best of what our public schools have to offer is accessible to all students.”

The Renton resident plans to formally announce his candidacy Wednesday. To win the nonpartisan job he must beat Reykdal who is seeking a third term. Brad Klippert, a former state lawmaker, is also in the race.

Reykdal said Saaris probably won’t be the last candidate in the race. 

“I take everyone seriously,” he said. “I will work very hard to defeat anyone that enters but I respect all the candidates that get in.”

Saaris, 41, was born and raised in Bellevue, graduating from Interlake High School and going on to earn a Bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and a master’s in education from Stanford University. He said his mother, grandmother and great-grandfather were all public educators.

He founded Equal Opportunity Schools in Seattle in 2007 following three years of teaching at a high school in Beaufort, South Carolina.

The group’s mission is to assist school districts in identifying and enrolling eligible students of color and low-income students in Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes. Saaris stepped down as leader in 2019 and plans to return to teaching this fall.

It had helped 52,776 students access to advanced coursework, including AP and International Baccalaureate, as of September 2021, according to the group’s 2021-22 annual report. Its staff has worked with educators in 800 schools in 250 districts across 33 states including 29 in Washington, the report states.

This is Saaris’s first run for political office. 

If successful, he said he wants to see greater investment in tutoring support to help the two-thirds of elementary students who are not proficient in reading, and two-thirds of middle schoolers who aren’t proficient in math. 

Additional resources are needed to address the mental health challenges of students and to recruit and retain quality teachers, he said.

He faulted Reykdal for the failure of the roughly $3 billion in pandemic aid to deliver better results on all those fronts. While local control provides districts independence in use of the dollars, Saaris said the superintendent could do a better job promoting the most effective ways for them to spend them..

Saaris contends other states have employed different approaches and produced better results than Washington.

“There are other ways to lead than directing people,” he said. “I don’t think we can leave the academic learning challenges and the mental health struggles at the feet of classroom teachers.”

Saaris said he’ll focus on fomenting change student-by-student, not engaging in culture wars on sexual health education, critical race theory and policies on transgender student groups.

“Those issues are especially animating to politicians on the extreme,” he said. “Where I am placing my campaign effort is the idea that most voters are focused on their kids’ learning, their kids’ mental health and their having real opportunities after they graduate.”

It’s the approach he said must be taken to end the exodus of students from many districts.

“(Parents) want their kids to read. They want them to learn math. If they see the public schools are solving the challenges they are most concerned about, they will re-engage with public schools,” he said.

Other candidates in the race

Reykdal, 50, of Tumwater, is a former teacher and local school board member. He’s also a Democrat and ex-state lawmaker. He was first elected state schools superintendent in 2016 by a single percentage point. He had an easier re-election in 2020, winning by nearly 10 points.

The COVID-19 pandemic upended the delivery of education to roughly 1.2 million students in Washington in ways that will be felt for years. 

Learning loss is broad and deep. Social and emotional challenges among students are widespread, and manifested in increased incidents of disruptive behavior. And closing campuses incited an exodus from public schools.

Reykdal said public schools are turning a corner. Graduation rates are at near record highs, assessment scores are rising, and enrollment is re-accelerating, he said. And there is more access to college credit while in high school, and options to become a bilingual learner.

He has said his focus in a third term will be building out local and regional student mental health supports, expanding career and technical education, and giving students greater flexibility in choosing which high school courses to take.

Klippert, 65, of Kennewick, is a Republican and former state lawmaker who ran for Congress in 2022, losing in the primary. Then, last fall, he made an unsuccessful bid for secretary of state as a write-in candidate.

Klippert has called for renewing the focus on reading, writing and math, as well as science, technology and engineering. 

Saaris is off to a fast start in fundraising. He registered his political committee on July 11 and raised $63,800 last month. Contributions this month have pushed him past $100,000, he said Tuesday.

By comparison, Reykdal reported $12,600 in contributions in July and had pulled in $49,300 for the campaign cycle. Klippert has reported $3,350 in donations.

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Jerry Cornfield
Jerry Cornfield

Jerry Cornfield joined the Standard after 20 years covering Olympia statehouse news for The Everett Herald. Earlier in his career, he worked for daily and weekly papers in Santa Barbara, California.