Washington News

Seattle Post-Intelligencer
July 22, 2004

Former state school chief Billings to run for her old job


Judith Billings wants her old job back.

Billings, the state school chief for eight years until 1996 when she announced she had HIV, announced Wednesday that she's challenging incumbent Terry Bergeson.

As a candidate for superintendent of public instruction, Billings offers voters a second high-profile choice.

The move also gives voters another view in the controversial areas of standardized testing and charter schools.

"I have been in the field of education for 42 years," said Billings, 64. "I just think I have a broad-ranging set of experiences, as well as perspective, that qualify me more than anyone else who is in the running."

Billings said she opposes the state's decision to use the Washington Assessment of Student Learning as a graduation requirement, as well as recent legislation authorizing the phasing in of taxpayer-funded charter schools.

Bergeson, who is seeking a third term, supports the WASL requirement and charter schools, both of which have become contentious with the Washington Education Association.

Earlier this year, the powerful 76,000- member teachers union snubbed Bergeson by not endorsing her.

Yesterday, the union said it will decide whether to endorse Billings next month. Debra Carnes, a WEA spokeswoman, lauded Billings' efforts to improve public education and noted that the union recently gave her its annual "Friend of Education" award.

"She's certainly been at the forefront of education for a number of years," Carnes said. "She's been a champion for kids, and the state needs that."

Billings said she supports the WASL as a snapshot of learning, but not as a high-stakes test.

"Our constitution calls for an education system -- it doesn't call for a testing system," she said.

"Everybody does not need to be a math whiz. Everybody does not need to be a spectacular writer."

Proficiency in reading, writing and math of the 10th-grade WASL is scheduled to become a graduation requirement in 2008.

The candidate said she opposes charter schools because of the state's poor economic climate, even though she supported a charter-school initiative four years ago. Back then, she said, the initiative was "carefully crafted" for accountability and that the economic times were "plush."

But the economy has changed, putting many school districts in a budget squeeze, and after voters rejected the 2000 initiative, Billings had a change of heart.

"Right now, I don't think it's a time to be trying things out as pilot projects that draw money away from the regular system," she said. "Plus, people have said we don't want this, and this is, after all, representative government."

Funding for schools statewide is inadequate, Billings said, adding that she would use the job as a "bully pulpit" to boost financial support.

Jim Spady, a member of the state's Academic Achievement and Accountability Commission -- known as the A+ Commission -- said he was disappointed by Billings' switch on charter schools.

"It makes me think she's listening a lot more to the WEA than what's best for the children of the state of Washington," said Spady, a charter-school advocate.

Billings and Bergeson confronted each other in the 1992 election for the schools post, when Billings was the incumbent and narrowly beat Bergeson.

Billings, who held the job since 1989, resigned suddenly in 1996, after announcing that artificial insemination with HIV-infected donor sperm had given her the virus that causes AIDS.

Since then, she has traveled the world speaking to schools and groups about AIDS prevention and awareness. President Clinton appointed her to his Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS in 1996.

She responded well to a regimen of drugs administered five times a day, and about a year ago switched to a regimen administered twice a day. Her T-cell count, a measure of the strength of the body's immune system, was below 200 when she was diagnosed; it now consistently registers between 800 and 1,000, she said.

Bergeson, a former WEA president and former executive director of the state Commission on Student Learning, took the position when Billings left.

Yesterday, Bergeson, 61, praised WASL scores as important benchmarks that have improved schools, and championed mastery of the test as a graduation requirement.

"These are the skills kids need to be successful in the 21st century," she said.

Like Billings, she, too, has switched positions on charter schools.

In the past, she said, she helped kill "five years' worth" of charter-school bills that she didn't think had enough accountability or access for students.

She supported the recent charter-school legislation, however.

"I'm very much in favor of having a choice, and when done right, charter schools are one of those choices," she said.

She also said she has been a strong advocate for education funding.

The Superintendent of Public Instruction works with the state's 296 school districts and nine Educational Service Districts. The agency employs 350 employees and oversees a $10.5 billion biennial budget, or 42 percent of the state budget.

P-I reporter Vanessa Ho can be reached at 206-448-8003 or vanessaho@seattlepi.com This report includes information from The Associated Press.

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