In low-key race, Susan Castillo looks to keep schools job

In low-key race, Susan Castillo looks to keep schools job
- By JULIA SILVERMAN
AP Education Writer

PORTLAND, Ore. - When the rumors started swirling that she might, just might, have an eye on fellow Democrat Ted Kulongoski's gubernatorial job, Schools Superintendent Susan Castillo moved swiftly to squelch them, announcing last summer that she intended to seek re-election to her current post.

That early announcement may have defused some of Castillo's potential challengers. In a race that's traditionally crowded, she's drawn just one opponent - Deb Andrews, a little-known education activist from Oak Grove.

And that has kept their race, to be decided on May 16, under-the-radar, despite the fact that education remains the issue that Oregon Republicans and Democrats identify as their top concern in statewide polls.

Castillo's supporters said she was able to ward off opponents - names that were floated ranged from charter schools activist Rob Kremer to House Education Chair Linda Flores, R-Clackamas, and, improbably, House Speaker Karen Minnis, R-Wood Village - because of a solid record after four years in office.

During that time, Castillo has focused on improving the test scores of minority students, lobbied to increase the requirements needed to get a high school diploma and pushed for the expansion of full-day kindergarten programs.

Her critics say another reason she didn't draw a challenger is that she's got the full support of the Oregon Education Association - which has contributed $50,000 to her campaign so far, about a third of the total Castillo has raised.

That's a lot of money for a race that's not been rated as particularly competitive, especially when the challenger reports raising only $3,285, according to reports filed with the Secretary of State's office.

Andrews, her opponent, who has worked on special education and gifted-child issues, fingers the teacher union's influence as one of the key motivators that propelled her into the uphill race.

"Why is the union at the table to determine learning options for poor kids?" she asked, referring to concerns raised about school districts losing money if students took community college classes during school hours. "The union's job should be to monitor paychecks, to focus on negotiations."

If elected, Andrews said she would be an advocate for a back-to-basics approach in the classroom, like a phonics-heavy curriculum in elementary schools, or math taught to young children without the use of calculators. She also called for a carrot-and-stick system to keep track of the progress schools are making on reading and math goals.

"If you said to a school, if 98 percent of your kids are not reading well in first grade, then you will lose your accreditation, how quickly do you think they would change their program to something that works?" she asked.

Castillo's term has not been without its controversies. The Department of Education was criticized early in her tenure, when it proposed that poorer or minority students should be allowed extra time to meet federally set testing goals, an idea Castillo and her staff now say was poorly presented. The department now hopes Oregon will be selected for a pilot program allowing them to measure individual student progress, instead of grade-level testing results.

Castillo's chief of staff, Ed Dennis, said his boss is also frustrated that she could not broker a deal between the OEA and the Oregon School Boards Association on a proposal for a state-run health insurance pool for school district employees. The OSBA runs its own health insurance pool program for educators.

And they worry, too, that voters will hold Castillo accountable for schools' financial woes, although it is the governor and legislators who have the final say over how much state money schools wind up getting every two years. Still, Castillo's concerned enough about the school funding situation to have spent some of her campaign cash on radio ads urging voters to pick legislative candidates who will support public schools.

As for her political future, Castillo, a former broadcast journalist from Eugene who is Oregon's first Hispanic to be elected to a statewide office, said she is "constantly" approached about the possibility of running for governor, or for U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio's seat, should he decide to step down or move on.

"But I still have a passion for this job." Castillo said. "I'm not focused on planning what I want to do after this next term. We have to get (education) right. It is at the heart of everything that matters."

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)