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Douglas unrepentant as her ‘Camelot period’ ends

Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas in her office on Dec. 12, 2018. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas in her office on Dec. 12, 2018. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Diane Douglas may be out, but she’s not down.

The outgoing superintendent of public instruction is making way for her successor and thinking about the possibilities ahead.

She has started packing up her office at the Arizona Department of Education, leaving some personal effects unboxed for now. There’s the bowl of M&Ms just outside her door for guests, a yellow school choice scarf draped over a chair. And just behind her desk, a framed copy of the 2015 Year in Review edition of the Arizona Capitol Times, on which a cartoon image of Douglas giddily tosses pink slips from the top of a building.

She has known this was coming for months now. Her re-election bid ended when she lost the Republican primary to Frank Riggs by less than 1 percentage point, a margin that did not spell victory for him in the long run. Democrat Kathy Hoffman defeated Riggs in the General Election.

Douglas said she’ll miss the privilege of serving Arizona’s children, but not the politics. Her tenure was frequently marred by political drama.

Yet she blamed her defeat not on what she called her “bumpy start” as superintendent, but on a fractured Republican Party and a chaotic political landscape that included Red for Ed.

A final blow

When Douglas would embark on her statewide listening tours, she said she always heard much the same thing from the communities she visited: They expressed the utmost support for teachers, with whom they sympathized over low pay and lackluster classroom conditions.

She said she doesn’t hear that anymore, though, not since April when teachers and support staff walked out of their schools on strike and marched at the state Capitol.

Red for Ed activists’ decision to strike was horrible for the state, Douglas said. And she believes it may have also been horrible for teachers who risked parents’ support.

Her disapproval set her on a path to one of the final blows to her image when she suggested the certifications of participating teachers were in peril despite the state’s ongoing teacher shortage.

“Do we let our teachers just walk out on children any time they feel like it at the behest of any political operative who comes along and pulls their strings?” Douglas told Capitol Media Services in June. “I guess the rhetorical question is, if you do something wrong that you normally get disciplined for, if you do it with enough people, do we then just say it doesn’t matter anymore?”

Many in the movement interpreted her comments as tone deaf at best and threatening at worst. In any case, Douglas’ call for discipline, which went nowhere in the end, won her few allies in the education community.

But that wouldn’t be the last time she sparked controversy in the final months of her administration.

She stirred up trouble beyond the Red for Ed movement when she advocated for science and social studies standards that critics argued were influenced by her personal religious beliefs. Her proposal died easily but not before a hefty dose of public outrage.

Speaking on the PBS program “Arizona Horizon” on December 10, Douglas again did not take responsibility. Instead, she said the narrative about her proposed standards was simply fake news.

A primary defeat

Those were just the final tortured moments in a series that made her look like a loose cannon, as “Horizon” host Ted Simons put it.

“With all due respect, that image was created by the media,” Douglas said, “The media that didn’t want me in the office in the first place.”

Whatever the cause, the image seemed to have stuck through to her ill-fated re-election campaign. It was an image she could not beat and one that left Republicans unable – or unwilling – to unite behind her.

She said the party wrote her off when she first ran in 2014 against Republican incumbent John Huppenthal. The message she got was: “We don’t run against incumbents.”

But when four Republicans stepped up to challenge her this year, she said she was left on her own, struggling to stay on message and attract donors.

“I am admittedly very conservative,” she said. “And it just became a five-person race of trying to out-conservative each other.”

While she was running on her record, she said her opponents ran on political rhetoric to get votes. That left the party with Frank Riggs as the nominee.

Now, she will be succeeded by a Democrat, the first since C. Diane Bishop took office in 1987.

Douglas offered no reflection on what that might say about her tenure in the office, arguing as she has since the primary race that she was the right choice for her party.

And she’s concerned that Hoffman is coming in with a knowledge gap that won’t be resolved by her experience as an educator.

“She needs to know what she doesn’t know first and foremost,” Douglas said of Hoffman.

If she can’t do that, Douglas fears the learning curve ahead could spell chaos for kids.

The end of an era

She’ll miss the kids, she said. But there’s no love lost between Douglas and the political realm.

She won’t miss the political games that deliver only “fads and gimmicks” rather than real solutions for education. And she has no regrets, not for her late stumbles and certainly not for her early squabbles with Gov. Doug Ducey and the state Board of Education over her firing of the board’s executive director, Christine Thompson, and Thompson’s top aide.

Ducey said Douglas had acted illegally, and the board voted 7-1 directing Douglas to let the pair back into the Department of Education building.

Douglas said she kept her promises to voters, and she didn’t back down when faced with political ramifications.

“No disrespect intended, but we talk a lot about cleaning the swamp in Washington. Well, it’s not the only political swamp that exists,” she said on “Horizon.”

She declined to single out any legislator. She said elected officials collectively need to take their jobs more seriously and understand what they’re voting on before they rubber stamp legislation that impacts millions of students.

“We are cranking out functional illiterates at an alarming rate, not just in this state but across the nation,” she said, adding that’s because adults are trying out theories while kids’ educational time dwindles.

She’s leaving office concerned for the future, and her worries won’t cease when she’s gone.

She started her journey to the superintendent’s office 30 years ago. Now, the “Camelot period” of her life may be over, but her work in education is not.

She was almost cryptic on “Horizon” about what comes next as Simons speculated that she’s likely to continue to be involved in public education.

“I think I just might be,” she said.

The truth is, she doesn’t know.

Love her or hate her, though, this Arizona firebrand isn’t likely to fade away.

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