Can This 32-Year-Old Teacher Be Arizona's Next Superintendent?

First-time candidate Kathy Hoffman overcame a longtime politician in Tuesday's Democratic primary for Arizona superintendent of public instruction.
First-time candidate Kathy Hoffman overcame a longtime politician in Tuesday's Democratic primary for Arizona superintendent of public instruction. ElectKathyHoffman.com
In her first campaign ever, speech therapist Kathy Hoffman scored a victory against an experienced politician in Tuesday's Democratic primary for superintendent of public instruction.

The 32-year-old speech language pathologist beat back former Arizona lawmaker David Schapira with 52 percent of the vote, based on the latest count of ballots.

The race was not only a contest to see who would try to unseat Republican incumbent Diane Douglas, but — from Hoffman's point of view — to continue the momentum of April's teachers' strike that closed schools and activated thousands of educators.

"I'm an educator, and this is the year of educators running for office," Kathy Hoffman said in an interview after the election. "And I think being a woman was also in my favor — that a lot of people are excited to vote for women for leadership positions."

On Wednesday afternoon, Schapira bowed out of the race in a statement posted on social media. "While the results were not what we hoped for, I remain committed to advocating for our students, educators, and schools in any capacity," Schapira wrote.

Meanwhile, Douglas is on the verge of losing her job. Voters in the Republican primary appeared to have no confidence in her ability to lead the Arizona Department of Education. With 100 percent of the precincts counted, Douglas was 3,000 votes behind former California congressman Frank Riggs. But Riggs leads Grand Canyon University instructor Robert "Bob" Branch by only 223 votes. 

Hoffman, who has taught in Arizona for five years, left her speech language pathologist position at the conclusion of the school year to devote herself to the superintendent campaign full-time.

She had worked at Sahuaro Ranch Elementary School in the Peoria Unified School District for two years, and previously taught in the Vail School District near Tucson. She moved to Arizona in 2009 and received a master's degree in speech-language pathology from the University of Arizona.

During the campaign, Hoffman and Schapira sought to differentiate themselves based on their credentials — Hoffman leaning on her status as an active educator and Schapira touting his governing experience.

"My way of communicating about the issues in our public schools was distinct from David Schapira's because I was always focused on this is what my students are experiencing," Hoffman said. "This is why public schools matter. This is why we should be investing in our public schools."

Schapira has served as a Tempe city councilman, the minority leader of the State Senate, and a school board member, whereas Hoffman was virtually unknown prior to the Arizona teacher walkout.

She was a strong supporter of the #RedForEd strike that closed schools in late April for a week, and her former campaign manager, Noah Karvelis, was a lead #RedForEd organizer.

The #RedForEd energy helped Hoffman, but Hoffman's status as an educator and the miles she traveling around the state were bigger factors for her win, Karvelis said.

“She came out of nowhere," he said. "She really worked hard and took down somebody who was a career politician and essentially hand-selected for the position.”

He stepped down from her campaign in April, but Karvelis denied that he left the position because of the increasingly political attacks on him during the teacher walkout. Republicans portrayed him as a die-hard socialist leader agitating for the strike because of his leftist views.

However, Karvelis said that the time commitment was simply too much to work on Hoffman's campaign and simultaneously organize the #RedForEd efforts.

As it turns out, the superintendent race featured its own share of harsh personal attacks. Hoffman released a brutal attack ad that featured two anonymous women accusing Schapira of bullying behavior. Schapira was "unable to navigate and control his temper," one of them says in the ad, which identifies her as a teacher who worked under Schapira.

"The bullying accusation is a really surprising one," Schapira said in a 12News debate earlier this month. He said that serving in a leadership role necessarily creates friction, and that people can get upset with decisions.

Although Hoffman described the attack ad as a "huge risk" for her campaign, she wanted to emphasize her commitment to "a work environment where people feel supported."

"I think it was also important that people know that while I might be really nice and empathetic, I’m also going to stand up for what’s right," Hoffman said. "And when I see a social injustice, I will say something about it and be direct about it."

Schapira did not respond to requests for comment.

Hoffman stands in stark contrast to the official she is hoping to replace. Douglas was a vehement opponent of the teacher walkout, whereas Hoffman was a participant. She voted "yes" in the union-led referendum to strike.

Before the walkout, Douglas gave ominous warnings that ADE would investigate all complaints filed against teachers who walked out. She emphasized that the strike was unlawful. And she criticized teachers who wore red shirts to school in solidarity for better wages, arguing that educators were politicizing their classrooms.

As superintendent, she "absolutely" does not represent teachers, Douglas told Arizona PBS in April, as teachers prepared to go on strike. "I represent the citizens of Arizona and their voice in education," she said.

Her approach and goals will be wildly different than Douglas, Hoffman said. If elected, she intends to use the superintendent position to be a strident voice for teachers at the Capitol. "One of my main motivations for running was feeling that we did not have a superintendent fighting for us and advocating for us," she said.

Even though the superintendent does not have the authority to allocate Arizona's school funding, Hoffman plans to be an advocate for several specific policy goals: supporting bilingual education programs, pushing the Legislature to enact paid maternity and paternity leave for educators, and fighting any efforts to arm teachers. 
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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