Carolyn Warner, who served as Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction for 12 years and has been a staunch advocate and policy leader for public education – in Arizona and nationally – for more than 40 years, received the Barbara Robey Lifetime Achievement Award from the Arizona School Boards Association on Dec. 12 during the ASBA-ASA Annual Conference in Phoenix.
Warner first became involved with her children’s schools as a PTA member and served on advisory committees while leading a successful family-owned business. Warner was elected to the Phoenix Union High School District Governing Board, before being the first non-educator elected as Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction in 1974.
“One responsibility led to another, so I warn people when they decide to run for a local school board that it can lead to a lot,” Warner said.
Today, Warner’s Corporate Education Consulting Inc., helps businesses, nonprofits and other organizations build stronger ties with the education marketplace.
Warner also currently co-chairs the Arizona Career and Technical Education Quality Skills Commission with Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal.
“There are thousands of quality jobs and careers that need qualified entry-level workers,” Warner said. “We meet with businesses and industries, and learn what they expect students who graduate from these programs to know and be able to do as entry-level employees.”
With that input, the commission develops test items and industry-validated assessments.
“That’s something I’m doing now that I just love,” Warner said. “Arizona is one of the leading states on this in the country.”
Q: What are the most important education issues right now in Arizona?
A: The voters in Arizona need to send a strong message to the Legislature that quality education at every level – preschool, K-12, community college, and university – is an absolute necessity if we’re to be competitive in this economy. We’ve had World War I and World War II, this is Work War III. We are at war in this 21st century with all the nations in the world to compete and lead productively.
Those of us who are retired depend on young people able to get jobs and pay in to the Social Security system. It isn’t just young parents for which school is incredibly important. It’s all of society.
For America to be competitive, we absolutely must have a remarkable school system. It is an investment not as an expenditure.
Leading business and economic development organizations in this state are beginning to see that the future of the State of Arizona is inherently connected to the quality of schools.
The Arizona Commerce Authority recognizes that education is an economic development issue. The Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry and local economic development groups in Phoenix, Tucson, Flagstaff, Prescott, Kingman and all over the state are now recognizing that the pipeline is public education.
I’m growing increasingly concerned about our ability to attract qualified and committed folks to serve on school boards. I am especially concerned to note an increased level of partisan political involvement in school board-level elections.
We have to encourage good people, without an ax to grind other than quality education, to serve on school boards. I think we need to do it through churches, community organizations, chambers of commerce, and business associations to encourage people to do their public service. Ask not what your schools can do for you, ask what you can do for your schools.
I have a third issue that I think is serious and that is how we counsel our students in middle and upper grades. At the present time, we are not doing a nearly good enough job of providing adequate career counseling for students.
We still function primarily as a society with a mindset that a college degree is essential for living a productive prosperous middle class life. That’s just not so. It’s not the only thing.
We have research from every side of the economic spectrum that young people who graduate from high school or earn an associate’s degree from community college with an industry-certified credential can begin work in Arizona at salaries of $50,000 a year and up. These are jobs with upward mobility and significant economic rewards.
Businesses and industries are becoming very involved in helping get the word out about these types of opportunities, but we are just scratching the surface in my view.
There are thousands of quality jobs and careers that need qualified entry-level workers. Arizona can’t be successful in attracting new businesses and stimulating the growth of companies already here if we can’t provide them with the kind of workforce they desperately need.
The last thought is that we are not doing nearly enough to see that our youngest children – our preschoolers – have the kind of start that they need.
We have great organizations like First Things First, Children’s Action Alliance, the Arizona Center for Afterschool Excellence and so many others that work tirelessly as advocates to expand and increase educational opportunities for children, especially those at an economic disadvantage.
As a state, we are not investing enough resources in early childhood education. It’s common knowledge and research shows that children who come to school with a limited vocabulary are very likely to start out behind and stay behind their more advanced and advantaged classmates. They’re at risk of failing the third grade high-stakes reading test and being held back.
In a sense, with a lack of preschool and leveling the playing field for these children, we’re creating our own economic handicap.
Q: Which of your work in the education arena are you most proud of and why?
A: As superintendent of public instruction, I focused on building linkages between our schools and Arizona business and industry – and I’m proud of that and that it persists today.
We developed the nation’s first sequential basic skills matrix with charts that went on the walls of schools and home to parents that said what a child should know at the end of kindergarten, first-, second-, third-grade and on up. We did it in three areas – computation, communication and citizenship. No other state had done that.
We focused on increasing educational access for rural and remote school districts such as those on tribal lands. It’s still a major issue. We didn’t complete the work.
We developed something that Arizona had never had before and that was a uniform accounting and reporting system. I’m a businessperson so I believe that all accounts for all school districts ought to be the same numbering system and it ought to be uniform so we can have a uniform accounting system so we know all the things we ought to know in order to manage better. The financial division of the Arizona Department of Education created that with the assistance and collaboration of the state auditor general.
We developed partnerships with educational leadership organizations and anybody else who shared our vision of increasing opportunity and quality in public education.
I’m particularly proud of the creation of the Arizona Educational Foundation, which is now 30 years old. The Arizona Educational Foundation does the teacher of the year program, the Principals Leadership Academy of Arizona for aspiring principals, the A+ School of Excellence, the Polly Rosenbaum Writing Contest, and all kinds of things.
The reason I created this 501c3 outside the Department of Education was because at that time we gave our Teacher of the Year a wooden apple, a certificate, and one meeting with the state board of education and sent them back. I knew it wasn’t enough. We all knew it. The business sector made it happen. We had the idea, but they funded it and still do.
Our Arizona Educational Foundation was the first one in the nation. Now all states have one. Most states contacted us and asked us for our bylaws and incorporation documents and they simply wrote in their name and filed it. So we were a great example in that regard.
Q: Who on the scene now do you think will become great state level leaders?
A: I think there are. Felicia Rotellini is a remarkably, energetic, talented, capable extremely intellectually honest person. I believe she will be a great attorney general.
I have known Fred DuVal since he was a very young man and I like him a lot. I think he’s a remarkable person, and I think if the political winds blow properly that he will make a remarkable governor.
In terms of Republicans, I like John Huppenthal. He’s a good guy. He believes in what he does.
I believe Scott Smith out in Mesa is a special person. His father George Smith was superintendent of Mesa Public Schools for many years and served on the state Board of Education during the years I was superintendent. The apple does not fall far from the tree. His son Scott is also a wonderfully, caring and committed person.
Q: How can businesses partner with schools to benefit students?
A: It’s almost an endless list. There are opportunities everywhere. There isn’t a school in Arizona that wouldn’t love to be involved with Arizona businesses.
Simple things like volunteering to read to a class once a week and for kids to see you at career days. Hiring high school students enrolled in cooperative education programs and career and technical education classes for internships. They can donate equipment. They can hire CTE teachers for projects.
Partnerships allow businesses to see the incredible tasks that schools at every level are confronted with and the challenges teachers and administrators deal with everyday.
(The interview was edited for length and clarity.)