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Candidates for top education office have concerns about charter schools

Kathy Hoffman and Frank Riggs

Kathy Hoffman and Frank Riggs

Charter schools, insufficient public school funding and Proposition 305 were some of the topics in the first debate in the race for state superintendent of public instruction.

Republican Frank Riggs and Democrat Kathy Hoffman met at the forum hosted by the Arizona Association of School Business Officials on September 12.

Here is some of what they had to say.

The candidates’ responses have been edited for length. You can view the entirety of AASBO’s September 12 meeting here

Attorney General Mark Brnovich is now asking lawmakers to hold charter schools more accountable for how they spend their money. Should the Auditor General’ Office be authorized to take a more active role in looking into charter school expenditures?

Hoffman: I see charter schools as another school community that we need to make sure is being run well, that children’s needs are being met, that teachers’ needs are being met. And I’ve seen cases when there have been issues with this. … I look forward to continuing to learn more about what we can do to improve this. And I do think that charter schools need to be held accountable, especially when there’s a lot of money at stake. … And I do believe that it is the auditor’s responsibility to do that. That all circles back to fiscal responsibility. … I think that we need to look at it more globally and make sure that all of our students have what they need. But I do believe that charter schools have a place here in Arizona.

Riggs: No charter school should be chartered, no charter school charter should be extended unless there are a majority of disinterested individuals on that charter holding governing board. I’m talking about independent members on the governing board who are not related in any fashion, family, business or otherwise, with the founder and operator of the charter school. Number two, all of those individuals need to go through formal training in nonprofit and charter school governance, including their legal and fiduciary responsibilities. They must acknowledge in writing those responsibilities, including their duty to very carefully examine any related party transaction. And I intend to push for the state board of charter schools to implement that policy on day one, and if they don’t, I’ll be up at the Legislature.

Special education students require specialized programs and services as mandated by state and federal law. What should the state be doing to make sure the required services are provided and that funding is available to do so?

Riggs: The federally mandated share is inadequate. … It’s like so many federal programs where the cost-burden shifts over time to state and local education agencies, so what’s a federal law then becomes an underfunded federal mandate. … I just had a meeting with the new superintendent of Mesa Unified School District, Dr. Conley… and she told me something that stunned me, I mean stopped me dead in my tracks. She said, “I just want you to know, Frank, we’re preparing for the children of opioid-addicted parents who will be entering into our schools.” … We’re going to have to redouble what we’re doing for these students and for special ed across the board.

Hoffman: These are our most vulnerable and marginalized children in our schools, and they absolutely need highly trained teachers and providers with that special education training. Last year, actually the year before, the Legislature passed a law that said that any certified teacher can provide special education services. This was very alarming to me because the special education teachers and providers go through extensive education and training. It’s also an issue of attracting teachers to the profession. … If we want to be attracting highly qualified, passionate teachers to the profession, we need to treat them with the respect that they deserve and make sure that they have competitive pay.

Arizona leads the nation when it comes to providing students educational options other than traditional school districts. Should the state continue to expand programs like charter schools, empowerment scholarship accounts and private school tax credits?

Hoffman: We should not be expanding the ESAs and vouchers because our schools are so severely underfunded… and to take funds out of our public schools to fund private school tuitions – private schools only make up about 3 percent of Arizona schools. We need to make sure that all of our students, all of our public schools have the funding they need to be successful. And I know that on average these vouchers are about $5,000, but a private school tuition is on average about $15,000. So it doesn’t cover the tuition for a low-income family. It serves people who can already afford a private school tuition. It doesn’t provide more options in a neighborhood where there are no options available. … We need to solve our public school funding crisis before we take more funds out.

Riggs: I think parents have a fundamental right and responsibility to choose and direct their child’s education. … But with respect to Prop. 305, as a longtime school choice advocate, I’m a no on Prop. 305. … And I’m very concerned about the origin of the scholarship tuition tax credit program, and without calling out any particular legislators, I’m just going to say this: We absolutely have to have tight financial conflict-of-interest laws in our state that simply say that… if you, a family member, a business contact or associate stand to derive a financial benefit, you cannot author, you cannot sponsor, you cannot debate, you cannot vote on that legislation. And if you refuse to disclose your conflict of interest and recuse yourself, you would be subject to sanctions by the legislative body or legal action.

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