Voters’ education priorities & Supt. of Public Instruction debate highlights - AZEdNews
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Voters’ education priorities & Supt. of Public Instruction debate highlights

Superintendent Of Public Instruction Candidates Debate On Arizona Horizon Last Week. Photo Courtesy Of Arizona Horizon On PBS Arizona

Learn what the Superintendent of Public Instruction does, hear if candidates’ priorities resonate with voters, and watch their recent debate.

The Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction oversees Arizona’s public school system and directs the Arizona Department of Education.

Both candidates facing off in the Nov. 8 election have experience in the role – Democratic candidate and current Supt. of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman and Republican candidate and former Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Horne.

Even though this election is a down ballot race, it may come down to a culture or ideology issue, because many people do not understand what the superintendent does, said Chris Kotterman, Arizona School Boards Association director of governmental relations said during a discussion hosted by Friends of the Arizona School Boards Association, a private, nonprofit organization committed to filling the need for trusted information on state-level K-12 education issues, on Sept. 8  at the ASBA Law Conference.  

“Hoffman does have the best chance of the down ballot folks based on her track record,” said Paul Bentz, senior vice president of research and strategy at HighGround Public Affairs Consultants during that discussion.

Hoffman and Horne discussed issues during the Citizen Clean Elections Committee candidate debate last week on Arizona Horizon broadcast by AZ PBS.

Arizona Horizon election debates 2022: Superintendent of Public Instruction

Voters’ priorities

HighGround Public Affairs Consultants did some work this year for the Center for the Future of Arizona and their Arizona Voters’ Agenda, as well as for Education Forward Arizona, Bentz said

The Arizona Voters’ Agenda indicated Republican, Democratic, and Independent/ Unaffiliated likely voters of all ages surveyed strongly support:

  • 89% ensuring Arizona schools have quality teachers and principals
    78% expanding career and technical education opportunities
    72% increasing teacher pay
  • 70% increasing the number of students who pursue and complete education or training beyond high school
  • 65% increasing funding for K-12 education
    58% closing gaps in educational outcomes for vulnerable populations including low-income, those with disabilities and English language learners
  • 52% increasing access and affordability of offering early learning for 3- and 4-years  

In addition, new insights from a new Arizona Voters’ Agenda survey will be released next week.

That research found that likely Arizona voters “believe that schools remain underfunded even after the almost $1 billion that we just put into the system in the last legislative session,” Bentz said.

“School funding and teacher pay – those are the issues that voters care about,” Bentz said.

“Likely voters don’t want to ban critical race theory. That’s not a priority to them,” Bentz said.

Horne has said that he would ban the teaching of critical race theory in Arizona K-12 schools, after bills sponsored by Republican state legislators to restrict classroom instruction on race and ethnicity they labelled as critical race theory failed in the 2021 and 2022 legislative sessions. Republican state legislators claim that White students are being made to feel guilty about things members of their race have done in the past to people of other races.

“Critical race theory, however, is actually an academic concept usually taught and discussed at the college level, looking at issues of how racism occurs and how even current attitudes are based on historical practices. And despite politicians, including in Arizona, running for office with a promise to halt it in public schools, there are only scattered reports of anything close to that being taught here,” said in a Capitol Media Services article that ran June, 27, 2022 in KJZZ 91.4 FM.

“Some of the things that Horne is talking about right now are not a priority of the electorate. It’s a primary election strategy that he’s trying to carry over, and it does not appeal to the broader audience,” Bentz said.

“Turnout in the primary (election) was 35%, turnout in the general (election) is going to be closer to 65%,” Bentz said. “That new set of folks who just started paying attention are much less inclined to care about some of these primary election issues that we’ve seen in the past.”

Candidate debate opening statements

In his opening statement, Horne, a former Arizona Attorney General and State Legislator, said student achievement on state assessments has declined during Hoffman’s tenure.

“When I completed eight years, the first time I was Superintendent, Arizona proficiency rates were over 60% for math and over 70% for reading. Under Kathy Hoffman, even before COVID those rates were 42% and 42%,” Horne said.

Horne also said social and emotional learning takes away from academic instruction time.

“A number of them (teachers) have complained to me that they want to teach their academics from bell to bell, but they can’t do that under Kathy Hoffman’s social emotional learning they have to play dumb games with the kids and that is a distraction from academics,” Horne said.

Horne said he’d like to share in the debate what he would do to raise Arizona’s test scores.

In her opening statement, Hoffman, a former preschool teacher and speech language pathologist in Vail and Peoria school districts, said when she was elected in 2018 it was the first time in over 20 years that an educator was elected to lead Arizona’s Department of Education.

“Over the past four years, I’ve travelled the state visiting hundreds of schools in all 15 counties, giving me the opportunity to hear directly from our teachers, our students and our families across the state,” Hoffman said.

“This is not a political steppingstone for me. As a Mom and as an educator, I’m committed to ensuring that all students can achieve their full potential,” Hoffman said.

Student testing concerns

Arizona Horizon Host Ted Simons asked Supt. Hoffman, “The latest test results the numbers are up, but not by much. Most Arizona students failed reading and math. What’s going on with that?”

“Well, I want to be absolutely clear that we have our work cut out for us after first struggling through the recession under Mr. Horne’s watch Arizona cut more from public education than any other state in the country,” Hoffman said.

Voters’ education priorities & Supt. of Public Instruction debate highlights Kathy-Hoffman-1024x573
Kathy Hoffman at the Clean Elections Candidates Debate for Superintendent of Public Instruction. Photo courtesy of Arizona Horizon on PBS Arizona

With the COVID-19 pandemic, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress,  or the NAEP, – “we saw nationally a more significant decline in reading and math over the past year than over the past 30 years in history, but yet Arizona did make some growth across all demographics, across income levels,” Hoffman said.

“Arizona actually is moving in the right direction and that’s because of the hard work of our teachers and our educators and our families working together to make sure kids are moving forward and making progress,” Hoffman said.

“Tom, are we moving in the right direction?” Simons asked.

“Definitely not. The biggest drop occurred not during COVID but between my 60% and 70% and the pre-COVID numbers of Kathy Hoffman of 42% and then 42%,” Horne said. “And of course, the numbers are getting even lower now.”

“One of the problems there, is that the schools were kept closed too much. The Governor wanted to use the CDC guidelines and leave it up to the districts for the local conditions. Kathy Hoffman was quoted in The (Arizona) Republic with the big headline that said close all the schools in the state,” Horne said.

“That was not good for students. It was certainly not good for their parents, some of whom had to give up their jobs. We don’t really know who that was good for, but it was bad for students,” Horne said.

Impact of COVID on schools

How much did the COVID-19 pandemic factor into test results, opening and closing schools, and children wearing masks, Simons asked Hoffman.

“Let’s go back to March of 2020 when no one in the world could have imagine what was about to hit us – COVID-19 – the most unprecedented pandemic of our lifetimes,” Hoffman said. “If I had known then what I know today, maybe some decision making would have been a little bit different.”

“During the past two years, I never would have imagined that part of my job as state superintendent would be making phone calls to superintendents and principals offering my condolences. For example, in the Hayden-Winkelman School District in a very rural part of Arizona, they lost Mrs. Bird a beloved first-grade teacher to COVID-19,” Hoffman said.

“Of course, my focus along with Governor Ducey was how can we ensure that we’re doing everything possible to keep our kids alive and safe and making sure that our schools are healthy learning environments for everyone who is working in that environment,” Hoffman said.

Simons then asked Horne, “With what was known then in the early days of the pandemic, was it not a responsible thing to do to err on the side of caution?”

“Well, a lot of private schools and charter schools stayed open throughout, and they didn’t have any serious problem with the health of the kids. Kids are resistant to COVID as opposed to older people,” Horne said.

Voters’ education priorities & Supt. of Public Instruction debate highlights Tom-Horne-1024x573
Tom Horne at the Clean Elections Candidates Debate for Superintendent of Public Instruction. Photo courtesy of Arizona Horizon on PBS Arizona

“Even if it made sense to close them initially, they were kept closed far too long, and that had a very detrimental effect on their mental health and that in turn had a detrimental effect on their physical health,” Horne said.

“You mentioned kids and older adults. There are older adults in families and older adults in schools whether they’re teachers or staff,” Simons said. “You want them protected as well, don’t you?”

“Well, yeah. I tried cases in court where they had a screen in front of the judge and we tried the case and we were there and nobody got sick,” Horne said.

“Over 30,000 Arizonans lost their lives to COVID over the past several years. It’s been completely tragic. But during the pandemic, we ensured we were focused on solving the issues to serve our students best. I’m really proud of our work,” Hoffman said.

“We launched the technology task force, partnering with the business community and philanthropy, creating the first of its kind office of digital teaching and learning in the Department to make sure we’re getting and expanding internet to our rural communities and getting technology out to our students,” Hoffman said.

“We added over $21 million to add more mental health professionals to our schools, decreasing the student to school counselor ratio by 20%, that’s making sure that kids are getting  the services that they need when we know that their mental health is a top priority,” Hoffman said.

Queer chat on Dept. of Ed website

Richard Ruelas, columnist at The Arizona Republic asked Horne about his campaign ad criticizing Hoffman “for starting a Q chat space on a department web site. Your ad calls it a sexual predator’s dream and says that she’s pushing it on children. Do you think this is an intentional act or something that she did by error?”

“No, I’m not alleging it’s intentional but I think it’s very harmful. I stand for empowering parents. Q chat stands for Queer Chat, believe it or not, and it’s on the official Department of Education website,” Horne said.

“Kids can go on there without their parents’ permission. They give detailed information about themselves. They give detailed information about their sex lives or sexual thoughts, and then they talk to Q chatters who are volunteers from around the country who are not licensed professionals. We don’t know how many of them …” Horne said.

“I need to jump in here with some clarification that Q Chat is recommended by the CDC and the national organization Mental Health for America as resource for helping to support our LGBTQ youth,” Hoffman said.

“What I think is more deeply concerning to Arizonans is that Mr. Horne has been soliciting work from David Stringer on his campaign, and we know from David Stringer’s record that he publicly made racist comments about Arizona children along with his history of being accused for paying minors for sex are deeply disturbing to Arizonans,” Hoffman said.

“I think these attacks on the LGBTQ community are strictly political,” Hoffman said.

“How did the idea for the Q Chat come up? Was it your idea? Did it go through the board? And what was the original intent?” Ruelas asked Hoffman.

“I’m glad you asked. We actually worked with a committee of parents, students from the LGBTQ community and educators and we created a portion of our website that is dedicated to resources for LGBTQ students, parents and educators,” Hoffman said.

“Again, this is a group of students who far too often are facing hate in the world and communication out there that’s attacking our LGBTQ youth so the intention behind having this is a resource again recommended by the CDC that is meant to support our students, so these attacks are political and baseless,” Hoffman said.

“They talk to queer chatters. They’re not licensed professionals. We don’t know how many of them might be predators. If that website is ever hacked, we know it will be sold on the Dark Web to predators there,” Horne said.

“Parents have no role to play. In fact, there’s an escape button so that if a parent comes and they start to see what’s on the computer, the kid can push the escape button and it looks like they’re talking about …” Horne said.

“What advice would you give to a student who’s struggling with their gender identity or sexual orientation and is afraid to speak to their parents about it?” Ruelas asked.

“They should talk with trained, licensed counselors in the schools. I’m in favor of a counselor in every school,” Horne said.

But this I think is outrageous to have the parents not play any role. If they don’t know that the kids are engaging in this Q chat with these adults,” Horne said.

“I have a message for the parents and grandparents out there. If you’re comfortable having your child talk with a stranger about sexual matters without your participation, please vote for Kathy Hoffman,” Horne said. “If you’re not comfortable with that, please vote for Tom Horne. I’m for empowering parents and getting up our test scores and working on academics.”

“Please respond to that,” Simons asked Hoffman.

“Well, I think that empowering parents is building strong relationships between parents and teachers. I’m a Mom, my daughter will be starting preschool in just a few short years. What I’m focused on is not these culture wars attacking LGBTQ youth. I am focused on the issues that Arizona families really care about,” Hoffman said.

“Families like mine that’s thinking about why is our state not funding preschool, why do we still not have full-day kindergarten,” Hoffman said. “If we want our state to be moving forward, let’s be supporting public education, including making our schools safe and inclusive for all kids including our LGBTQ youth.”

“Let me just also say, I’m a father and a grandfather and I don’t think kids should be talking with unlicensed professionals with the parents not knowing about it,” Horne said.

David Stringer’s campaign involvement

Simons asked Horne “The David Stringer situation. Why would you have someone remotely like that involved in your campaign?”

“The only association he had with the campaign is that he made a contribution which  I ultimately returned and that was it,” Horne said.

“There was a photograph of you with him and it sounded as though he was a part of your campaign, or he helped you with your campaign,” Simons said.

“It was not a photograph of him with me. It was a photograph of him with some signs that were put up that was part of his contribution in kind, but he is not part of my campaign,” Horne said.

“The campaign is based in Phoenix, he’s a lawyer up in Prescott. His only association with the campaign is that he made a contribution in kind that I ultimately returned and that’s it,” Horne said.

“But you defended it. You defended him, originally, saying that the charges were false, and you stuck by him and then all of a sudden you didn’t stick by him. What changed?” Simons asked.

“All he did was make a contribution in kind. Ted, let me ask you this, can we talk about education policy? Because I think the people out there would like to know as opposed to a personal attack,” Horne said.

“Yes, and we are going to after you answer,” Simons said.

“This is not a personal attack when it’s on your record,” Hoffman said.

“A campaign contribution to me being returned does no harm to anybody. Queer chat does a lot of harm to kids who are on there without their parents’ knowing about it and who knows what predator they’re exposed to,” Horne said.

“Should you have been aware of that donation?” Simons asked.

“Yes, and I ultimately returned it,” Horne said.

“It was an in-kind donation and you paid him in cash?” Ruelas asked.

“Yeah, I paid in cash to him for the cost of putting some signs up . That was it. Can we talk about education policy?” Horne said.

“No, let’s be clear about this issue that it was the day after the primary election. The very first person you thanked on Twitter was David Stringer, who had made publicly racist comments about Arizona children and had been accused of crimes – paying minors for sex. That is horrific,” Hoffman said.

“I know under my leadership, I would never associate with anyone like that. I would never solicit them to put up a sign. I would never ask them to spend any money toward my campaign. It’s a matter of a lack of judgement, and we want to make sure that the person who is leading the Department of Education understand the difference between right and wrong,” Hoffman said.

“I can see that Kathy Hoffman does not want to talk about education policy. I want to talk about how are we going to get our test scores up,” Horne said.

What to do about the teacher shortage

Simons then asked, “Why is there a teacher shortage in Arizona and what would you do about it?”

“Well, I think there are two things to do about the teacher shortage. Interestingly, teachers when they leave the profession, they’re surveyed, and the Number One reason they give for leaving is not salary, it’s failure to have support from the administration, especially on discipline,” Horne said.

“I would emphasize that we have to have administrators support our teachers on discipline. We have to have orderly classrooms, otherwise the kids can’t learn,” Horne said.

“At my school district, I served 24 years on the school board we didn’t reverse a teacher on discipline one time, not one time. We were known as the toughest district around. Our learning came up. Our test scores came up,” Horne said. “Under Kathy Hoffman’s social emotional learning, they discourage discipline and that’s the Number One.”

“Number Two. We have to pay our teachers more. We have to cut back on administration. I have been a long crusader against excessive administrative costs. We have to pay our teachers more. We’re losing teachers to all our surrounding states,” Horne said.

“For me the Number One priority is that our teachers deserve competitive pay. For far too long, Arizona’s average teacher pay has been at the bottom,” Hoffman said.

“Under my administration we’ve also been looking at innovative ways to strengthen the teacher pipeline and make sure that we’re supporting teachers who are already in the classroom.” Hoffman said. “Number One we created the Arizona Teacher Residency program in partnership with NAU to create a new teacher pipeline to recruit teachers.”

“Second, we’ve been investing heavily – millions of dollars – in teacher mentoring, especially for our new teachers who are new to our classrooms. We want to make sure they feel supported and can lean on the expertise of master teachers,” Hoffman said.