Arizona’s current school’s chief has many differences compared to her two predecessors. She’s only 33-years old, she’s a Democrat, and the first few things she accomplished in her new position took a more progressive approach to improving education in the state.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman’s first few months in office were also free of the strife that engulfed the previous two administrations of the Arizona Department of Education – Republicans John Huppenthal and Diane Douglas.
Hoffman gave her inaugural State of Education speech to the House Education Committee in February where she outlined her agenda for her first term. She said she hoped to repeal the “no promo homo” law that discriminates against non-heterosexual children in schools, and cut the English Language Learner program from four hours to two.
She accomplished both.
Educators have pushed lawmakers for years to revise the mandate, which requires English-learning students to take four hours of English immersion every day, where they are separated from their peers.
Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, sponsored SB1014 to help accomplish this reduction. It passed through the Senate and House unanimously, and Gov. Doug Ducey signed it into law on February 14.
The ELL program became Hoffman’s first popular accomplishment, whereas the first acts of Huppenthal and Douglas caused uproars.
In 2011, when Huppenthal, a former legislator, took on his new role, he immediately sought to ban the ethnic studies in Tucson Unified School District. Huppenthal said the school district’s program, known as Mexican American Studies, violated state law because of materials that repeatedly referred to white people as oppressors of Latinos. The program’s website showed it was designed primarily for Latino students and materials repeatedly emphasized the importance of building Latino nationalism, Huppenthal said.
The law to ban ethnic studies forbade classes that promoted ethnic solidarity, promoted the overthrow of the U.S. government, and were designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group, or promoted resentment toward a race or class of people.
Huppenthal gave the district 60 days to change or eliminate the ethnic studies program or he warned they would lose up to $15 million in state funding. A federal judge eventually declared the ban as unconstitutional.
When Douglas took office, she quickly fired the top staff of the Arizona State Board of Education, Christine Thompson, the executive director, and Sabrina Vazquez, assistant executive director. At the time, Doulas did not give any reason for the firings, which led several education pundits to wonder if this was anything more than a political decision.
Greg Miller, president of the state board at the time, said he thought the firings were an attempt to shut down Common Core, the learning standards that Douglas vowed to get rid of during her run for the office.
The firings also got the attention of newly-inaugurated Gov. Doug Ducey, who overturned both dismissals, allowing Thompson and Vazquez to return to work.
From that point forward Douglas and Ducey didn’t see eye to eye, and things became tense.
Douglas then persisted to kill Common Core in Arizona and enlisted the Legislature to do it for her. A bill made its way through the House along party lines, but failed in the Senate twice.
Like Huppenthal before her, Douglas only lasted one term, eventually losing in the Republican primary to Frank Riggs, the former California congressman who would go on to lose to Hoffman in the general election by more than 70,000 votes.
After her ELL success, Hoffman didn’t sit idly by. She powered on through to get the “no promo homo” law repealed.
With the help of Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, sponsoring a floor amendment and Attorney General Mark Brnovich declining to defend a corresponding lawsuit, the repeal sailed through both the House and Senate on its way to Ducey’s desk. The Board of Education then agreed to settle the lawsuit after nobody came forward to defend it.
If Hoffman’s State of Education speech in early February is an outline to her tenure as state schools chief, these few accomplishments won’t be the only changes she tries to make. Following along her speech it seems next on her agenda would be helping to fix the teacher shortage or improving parental leave.