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New state schools chief Douglas says Common Core changes will be gradual

Diane Douglas

Diane Douglas

The state’s new top education official is promising to use her position to push for more money for public schools.

But Diane Douglas won’t demand that lawmakers and incoming Gov. Doug Ducey give the schools the $317 million a court has said they’re owed right now, much less than $1 billion they may be owed for the years that schools were shorted.

“What I’m going to do is lobby, if you will, for the prioritization of education,” she said. “Quite frankly, the Legislature is going to have to sort it out, and the governor.”

Douglas outlined her view of what she will – and will not – do about education in Arizona, including funding, in an extensive conversation with Capitol Media Services shortly before she is scheduled to formally take office on Monday. In the meantime, foes already are raising money in hopes of mounting a recall in July, the earliest allows by the Arizona Constitution.

In her interview, Douglas sought to allay fears that she will immediately start to dismantle the Common Core academic standards that were adopted by the state four years ago and already are being implemented.

The Sun City West resident, a former member of the Peoria Unified School District board, acknowledged she campaigned for office largely on her opposition to the standards, saying they were “controlled by federal bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.” And she maintains her belief that they were adopted by the state Board of Education without proper input from parents and teachers.

Those comments also are being cited by recall supporters as a reason to try to oust her as soon as possible.

But Douglas said there are no plans to simply blow the standards up – even assuming she had the unilateral power to do that.

“I’m not going to whip a set of standards out of my back pocket and say ‘this is what it’s going to be now,’ because that’s as bad as what was done before,” Douglas said. And she offered an olive branch of sorts to teachers, saying they need to be involved in crafting those standards.

That process, she said, will be gradual. More to the point, Douglas said Common Core – or Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards, as Gov. Jan Brewer renamed them to blunt opposition – will not only remain in place for the time being but also will be the starting point for any changes to come.

The more immediate issue for schools, however, involves money. And that starts with the question of missed state aid.

A 2000 voter-approved measure hiked the state nickel sales tax by six-tenths of a cent. The same measure requires lawmakers to boost basic state aid to schools each year to account for inflation.

Schools filed suit after lawmakers, in an effort to balance the budget, stopped funding the formula in 2010.

The Supreme Court ruled last year that action was illegal. Now the case is going back through the legal system to determine how much is owed.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Katherine Cooper said just resetting basic aid to where it should have been means an immediate $317 million infusion for the current academic year. That would rise to $336 million for the coming school year, with future aid built on that base.

Lawmakers are appealing that ruling.

Then there’s the separate question of more than $1 billion in inflation aid not paid in between. Cooper has yet to rule on that question.

Douglas sidestepped a question of whether it was fair for lawmakers to balance the budget by refusing to provide inflation funding.

“Let me just say, I’m glad I’m not in the Legislature,” she said.

“They’re faced with some difficult choices,” Douglas continued. “We have a budget deficit that can be staggering to look at.”

And what of going forward?

“I’m going to do the work of my office, which is to make sure that the money gets where it needs to be,” Douglas said, meaning the priority for whatever comes in should be to get it into the classroom.

“That’s my side of it,” she said. “It’s the Legislature’s side to deal with the lawsuit and to play it from there.”

On the spending side, Douglas said she opposes various efforts to consolidate the more than 200 school districts in the state. That has been pushed by various interests who contend it would reduce administrative costs.

Douglas, however, calls it an issue of local control.

“We have mechanisms in state statute which allow districts to consolidate,” she said. “If the community wants it, they have the legal ability to do it.”

Common Core aside, Douglas is likely to face scrutiny from the business community for any changes she tries to push through on curriculum.

Among the ongoing issues is whether students are ready to take on the jobs that Arizona companies need to fill. That is part of what led to not just the Common Core standards but an emphasis on science, technology and math.

Douglas made no secret during her campaign she has a problem with that focus, saying that the education system has turned in to one predominantly of training children for jobs. She said that teaches children is that “the only goal that they should have in life is to become worker bees.”

“We have to educate the whole child,” Douglas said at the time. “We have to make sure that our children are not only ready to contribute to society but know how to be self-governing adults.”

That view has not changed.

“I think we need to make sure, and I think we have the expertise here in Arizona, with all our stakeholders put together, to make sure that Arizona students have the education they need to not only be well educated but to be good citizens of Arizona and of America,” she said in her interview. “Our goal has to be to make them well educated citizens, not just workers.”

Nor was she dissuaded by concerns by some business leaders that children graduating from Arizona schools may not be qualified for the jobs that need to be filled.

“If we have well-educated children who are good citizens, Intel will have what it needs,” Douglas said. “I have the ultimate faith in that.”

But while wanting to place a greater emphasis on civics, including history, Douglas said that timing is everything.

“We have to be honest with our children,” Douglas said. “But we have to be honest with them at the appropriate place at the appropriate time.”

Sometimes, she said, youngsters are not prepared for the whole truth.

“If we tell our children the worst things when they’re young, look at what it does,” Douglas said.

“Have we made mistakes as a country? No doubt about it,” she continued. “But have we spread more freedom and prosperity and freed more countries and saved more people in my opinion? Yes we have.”

Douglas, 58, who grew up in New Jersey, acknowledged that in the 1950s and early 1960s there was a big emphasis in schools on patriotism. And she said she’s not proposing that sort of one-sided approach to teaching history and civics.

“But has the pendulum swung too far the other way?” she asked. “Have we gone from being too positive to being too negative?”

She said such “ongoing spirited debates” are good for the education system.

“There are a lot of countries around the world you couldn’t have that discussion,” Douglas said. “But here we can.”

Douglas said she is sensitive to the issue of whether what is being taught has a Euro-centric view. To combat that, she is setting up a Latino-American advisory committee, similar to an existing panel that advises the Department of Education on African-American issues.

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