Chris Kotterman, the Arizona School Boards Association director of governmental affairs, likes to help people – “It’s the Boy Scout thing.”
He volunteers his time as a certified EMT – but says no one is walking around today simply because of him – and works as a firefighter when NASCAR comes to town. But he has devoted his life to helping those in an arena the Kotterman “brand” has been a part of for decades.
His mother worked for 25 years as an educator here before becoming president of the Arizona Education Association.
Penny Kotterman ran unsuccessfully for superintendent of public instruction against Republican John Huppenthal in 2010. And with her blessing, her son became an unusual addition to Huppenthal’s administration.
For years, Kotterman always got the question, “Oh, are you Penny’s son?” But recently, as he has settled in his career, that question has flipped.
What was working with Huppenthal like as a Democrat?
Obviously, it was understood that he is a Republican, a more conservative guy. There were going to be things that he wanted to do that I didn’t agree with, and that was fine. He runs the joint, so he got to decide… People try to make politics personal all the time, and people may draw conclusions about me based on my political past. But at the end of the day, I try very hard not to make it personal. We, obviously, get invested in the issues emotionally, and we try to “win” for our side… His strength as superintendent was knowing what he didn’t know.
What’s your take on the current administration at ADE?
Superintendent Douglas has a very – and I don’t say this pejoratively – righteous view of what public education should be. She has a very specific idea, and she doesn’t want to deviate from that. That’s great when you’re running a campaign, but it’s really hard to adhere to that when you’re running an agency. I’ll give her this: She’s very true to the principles that she has laid out. They’re not always compatible with efficient governance, but she is 100 percent committed… She’s independent. She exists in her own space. That can make it hard to get things done politically sometimes because you need allies. But I give her credit for being committed to her vision.
What’s your take on what we’re seeing in Arizona’s education system?
First of all, I’m optimistic. From my time at the department through today, I’ve worked with people who are super committed to making sure that students get the best education that they can get. I don’t think that people on the outside understand the level of commitment. The idea that adults get really excited when they’re able to help children learn – that can come across as very corny. Educators are true believers. They live to see children succeed. It’s crazy – crazy in a good way. It’s not contrived. It’s not corny. It’s legit… But I’m also frustrated because I see that happening, and in the world that I operate in daily, there’s a greater level of cynicism on the part of policymakers about the true motivations of teachers, administrators. A distrust of government generally and it’s ability to do good things. That’s unfortunate… They really want to help students reach their full potential, and right now, in some ways, they can’t. And that’s sad.
What’s the biggest obstacle facing Arizona’s education system?
The 800-pound gorilla of school policy right now is, far and away, Proposition 301. Not just the renewal of it but how we’re going to find enough resources to both maintain the level of funding it provides but also find us enough resources to get back to the level that the funding formula provides… And then, on top of that, is teacher recruitment and retention. Resources are the overarching issue that drives all of these things, but that issue is the number one thing that is of concern to public schools. We don’t pay our teachers enough for the work that we ask them to do, and they’re not staying because of it. I said earlier that they are insanely committed individuals, and they are. But we have to break through this idea that just because you’re committed to the success of children means that you don’t deserve to make as much money as you otherwise might somewhere else.
Stepping back from the state level for a moment. Your Twitter account seems to suggest you see the president as something of an obstacle for the country.
I am not a fan of the president. Not because I want him to fail. I actually don’t… I don’t want a president who shoots off the cuff. I want someone to undertake reasoned decisions, even if those decisions are things I don’t agree with… I’m known as a more liberal Democrat, but this flag right here, John McCain had that flown over the Capitol for me when I became an Eagle Scout. I am raised from solid, Midwestern, Republican stock. My father was a registered Republican. I own a firearm. I have a lot of respect for institutions. I respect the presidency, so I won’t say terrible things about him, like “not my president” or anything like that. I’ll criticize him politically. But this Boy Scout thing, when he says the leader of the Boy Scouts called him and told him it was the best speech that had been given to them ever. And then, of course, they say, “No, we didn’t say that.” Now, either the Boy Scouts are lying or the president is lying. That’s somewhat of a microcosm, but in my view, the president of the United States should not put himself in that position. It’s just not smart… Do your political thing. You’re going to pursue policies that I don’t agree with, and that’s 100 percent appropriate. You’re the president, and you get to do that. But it bothers me because it tends to undermine America. And despite the fact that I’m a registered Democrat, I like America.