Christine Thompson may be most known for the drama that very publicly unfolded when Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas tried to fire her from her position as executive director of the State Board of Education in 2015.
But over the past four years she also experienced a different sort of “whirlwind” as the rising president and CEO of Expect More Arizona, an advocacy group for world class education, and she is raising twin boys.
The experience has given her a new perspective on a world she has played a role in since she was the state House Education Committee intern. That was her introduction to state policy, and she’s been hooked ever since.
It definitely gives me a different lens, and I have a different appreciation now that I have kids as consumers of the system. I’ve talked to several friends about school choice and how wonderful it is to have school choice. But at the same time, making that choice, for those of us who have the luxury to be able to do it, is hard because there is rarely a perfect choice for your kid. I hope it makes me a little less of a “helicopter parent” because I am keenly aware of the professionals that educators are, and I want them to be the leaders.
What’s the plan for your boys moving forward? Sticking to district schools or taking a different route?
We live in a very strong district, so I think we’ll stay with the district. But it’s going to depend on what their needs are. I’m going to let their needs dictate where we end up going.
So, you’re making a transition over to Expect More Arizona. But you were just at Achieve 60 AZ where the focus is on the college attainment rate. Why is that so important for Arizona right now?
We’re behind. The whole nation really is behind where we need to be. The greater the amount of post-high school attainment a person has, the less likely they are to be unemployed, the higher their earnings are, the less likely they are to be involved in criminal activity or requiring social safety net services. We really see the increasing post-high school attainment as a mechanism to raise the economic success not just of individuals but also of the state.
Expect More on the other hand has several goals for the state to work toward. Does any one stand out to you?
In the years I’ve been involved in education at various levels, there’s always K-12 – talking about K-12 issues. Early ed, pre-K talks about their issues. Higher ed is in their own space. And it’s been a relatively recent phenomenon that they are cross-pollinating more. And I think the (Arizona Education) Progress Meter is the perfect example of how intertwined all of those sections are. You can’t expect to have increased attainment if you’re failing on the lower end of the goals. If you’ve got low participation in quality pre-K programs or third grade reading is low and eighth grade math is low . . . all of these things are building blocks to meet that attainment goal.
Why do you think Arizona’s education system is at the point it is now?
We have a number of challenges, and some of them are not unique to Arizona. Educators in general have a challenge being viewed as the professionals that they are in part because everyone has experienced a classroom. Funding has been very difficult over the years. Our resources are shrinking, and our population is growing. We’ve also had an environment where we have pushed innovation, which is a good thing, but at the same time, we’ve done so at a pace where we might not understand how well things are being implemented. It’s been about the change-of-the-week.
What was that feud with Diane Douglas like for you?
It was a challenge. I think the superintendent and her staff were doing what they thought was in their best political interest, and that’s what I was doing for the board – ensuring that constitutional body had its appropriate representation. It was an interesting political time to be involved in, and it will probably always be associated with my name, which I’m not sure how I feel about. It is what it is. It happened, and I think it’s good for the state that it’s been resolved. But it’s always going to be a part of some cocktail party conversation wherever I am. I’ve had people tell me my name sounds familiar, and I’m like, “Yeah, you may have seen me on TV.”
You and your deputy at the time, Sabrina Vasquez, actually returned to the office after being “fired.” How awkward was that?
We knew we had a job to do and we continued to do it. It was a challenging time. And it was awkward because the state board offices at that time were on the fourth floor, same as the superintendent’s office, and uh, there’s only one ladies’ room on that floor.
Were you satisfied with how that ended?
I’m just happy it was resolved, frankly. I think it’s healthy that there is now a clear separation in the budget and in statute between the state board and the superintendent.
What do you think of Douglas now? Is she the right person for that job?
She’s doing a fine job as superintendent, but I think there’s more that could be done. There’s times when state boards work very closely with superintendents. There’s times when state boards and superintendents don’t get along. And it really is a cycle. It happens more often than you might realize in the press. In this last round, there was a lot more tension between the elements. There’s a lot of work to be done to build those coalitions back to where they were before, and I don’t know that the superintendent has yet been successful at doing that.