Superintendent Kathy Hoffman Tells Lawmakers Her Priorities. Will They Listen?

Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman addresses the House Education Committee on February 4.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman addresses the House Education Committee on February 4. Joseph Flaherty
Outlining her vision for Arizona's schools, new Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman told lawmakers on Monday that the state's teacher shortage is "nothing short of a crisis."

It was an ambitious first State of Education speech at the Arizona Legislature for the schools chief, a political neophyte. But because of the constraints of her office, she has very little power to solve the teacher crisis on her own.

Hoffman will have to rely on the Legislature if she wants to accomplish much, if any, of the lofty set of priorities she laid out on Monday, including boosting teacher pay to help with retention.

A favorite of the #RedForEd movement, the 33-year-old former speech pathologist has promised to use her new position to advocate for educators.

As a first-time candidate supported by the #RedForEd movement, she defied the odds by defeating an experienced Democratic politician in the primary and Republican nominee Frank Riggs in the general election.

She inherits a Department of Education from former superintendent Diane Douglas at a moment when K-12 education funding and charter school reform are expected to become major policy discussions for the rest of the legislative session.

Year after year, Hoffman said, educators are leaving the state or the teaching profession in droves. Exacerbating the crisis, Hoffman said, in the next two years, 25 percent of Arizona educators will be eligible for retirement.

She said that in order to retain and recruit highly qualified teachers, Arizona needs to offer competitive pay and benefits.

The rising cost of health care has cut into teachers' budgets, Hoffman said. She endorsed offering paid maternity and paternity leave as well as housing subsidies to "draw more young people to the profession and retain our veteran teachers as they build their careers and their families in our state."

Hoffman praised Governor Doug Ducey's plan to boost teacher pay 20 percent by 2021 as "a good start," but criticized the plan for limiting the raises to classroom teachers and excluding counselors, special education teachers, music teachers, and speech therapists, among others.

Echoing Ducey's critics in the #RedForEd movement, Hoffman said that giving raises to all of these employees "can only be done with a dedicated, sustainable funding source – something that you, in the Legislature, can accomplish."

"I am encouraged that the conversations thus far have been how to fund our schools, and not if we will," Hoffman said.

Republican lawmakers have resisted raising taxes to restore Arizona's per-pupil education funding to levels that existed before they made deep cuts during the Great Recession.

This session, however, a proposal from conservative Republican Senator Sylvia Allen would raise Arizona's education sales tax, Proposition 301, from 0.6 cents to a full penny. Allen's bill would raise an additional $472 million annually for K-12, higher education, and community colleges.

Ducey has said he opposes the proposal: "We don’t need a tax increase. We’ve got available dollars right now," he told reporters last month

Hoffman told reporters after her speech that her concern with increasing Prop 301 revenue is that like Ducey's 20x2020 plan, the revenue only goes to certain teachers, not all educators.

"I would like us to see other options; however, I am a realist in knowing that that isn't a top priority for our governor to find other tax-revenue sources," Hoffman said.

Republican lawmakers on the ideological center may try to tackle charter school reform this session, following reports of questionable procurement practices and multimillion-dollar payouts to charter school operators. Hoffman said she supports holding all schools accountable in transparency, governance, and procurement. And she endorsed Ducey's proposal to increase staff at the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools who can oversee the sector.

"The main purpose of charter schools should be to educate our children, not to profit at the expense of our communities," Hoffman said.

Hoffman's administration is preparing to embark on "a top-to-bottom audit" of the department's finances and operations. "This audit is not meant to be punitive. It is a tool for holding me accountable to my constituents," she said.

In response to a question from Representative Regina Cobb, Hoffman noted that the first meeting of her audit committee was Tuesday, but she was unable to immediately say how long the audit might take.

One piece of Hoffman's platform is heading for a clash with Ducey, though she didn't mention it during her speech. In his proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year, Ducey proposed spending $9.3 million to add upwards of 89 new school resource officers to school grounds – one for every school that requested an officer during the last funding cycle.

Hoffman opposed adding SROs to school grounds during her campaign, arguing that students of color face disproportionate discipline and discrimination from them.

Asked about the governor's plan, Hoffman told reporters that her focus is on adding school counselors, social workers, and school psychologists, but said she is willing to work in a bipartisan fashion to find solutions. Ducey's proposed budget includes $12 million over the next two years for mental health workers in schools, a concept Hoffman supported in her speech.

"Until we address the mental health of all of our students, I would say that having more SROs is not my top priority," Hoffman said. She did not say if she has spoken with the governor to push back on his plan.

Unless Hoffman can find supportive legislators who will strike Ducey's increased SRO funding from the budget, it's likely that the governor will get the $9.3 million, fulfilling an element of his school safety plan which failed during the previous legislative session. 

The superintendent also endorsed repealing or rolling back two of Arizona's more controversial education policies.

She spoke out against Arizona's law banning sex-education instruction that "promotes a homosexual life-style" or "portrays homosexuality as a positive alternative lifestyle."

Hoffman said repealing the so-called "no promo homo" law will help create an inclusive environment for LGBTQ students who face bullying and harassment. "This policy is not just outdated, it has always been harmful and wrong," Hoffman said.

Additionally, she endorsed a Republican-sponsored proposal to roll back the restrictive four-hour English instruction block for non-native English speakers. Hoffman said the measure has the potential to improve Arizona's dismal graduation rate for English-language learners, which ranks as the worst nationwide, according to data analyzed by NPR.

"This will allow our students to spend more time immersed in the general-education coursework with their native English-speaking peers, something that research shows actually improves their academic success."
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Joseph Flaherty is a staff writer at New Times. Originally from Wisconsin, he is a graduate of Middlebury College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Contact: Joseph Flaherty