When I took office in January, I promised to work collaboratively with stakeholders to find solutions to the challenges that education faces in Arizona. We have made significant strides toward building and repairing relationships between the Arizona Department of Education and our partners in the Governor’s Office, the Legislature, and the State Board of Education.
There were several bright spots in this year’s budget, including money for districts to hire new school counselors and the next installment of 20×2020 raises. There was also funding for the Teachers Academy to address our critical shortage of teachers. I applaud the bipartisan efforts that helped deliver these wins.
An urgent priority as I took office was to repeal antiquated, discriminatory policies that had impacted students and families for decades. One of these laws was known as the “no promo homo” law and I called for its repeal in my first State of Education speech. While I could not have predicted the turn of events that led to its eventual repeal, the state made the right decision by removing this outdated and harmful legislation from the books. Our LGBTQ students no longer face codified discrimination in our schools, and all students will benefit from the ability to receive medically accurate sex education.
But there were other issues that I discovered needed addressing – and fast – when I assumed office. For example, I quickly learned there was widespread confusion and instability surrounding statewide testing. I worked diligently with my staff, the State Board of Education and the Legislature to adopt a five-year plan that provides educators and families with clarity about what to expect regarding AzMERIT and statewide testing.
I can’t reflect on this session without celebrating one of our earliest successes: reducing the restrictions of the four-hour English instruction blocks. Improving instruction practices for Arizona’s many English-learning (EL) students is a top issue for me. That’s why I was thrilled when legislation relaxing this mandate passed both chambers with unanimous support in mid-February. The next step will be to repeal Arizona’s English only instruction law – an effort that almost made it through this session. I remain hopeful we can send it to the voters for approval in 2020.
We saw success forging bipartisan agreements on several issues, but there were missed opportunities for more collaborative work across the aisle. Broad bipartisan support existed on issues like charter school reform, repeal of the English only law, a more comprehensive approach to CTED’s and more. It was disappointing to see these bills fail when we could have worked together to develop solutions to benefit all Arizonans.
We also went another year without finding a sustainable, dedicated revenue stream to return education funding to pre-recession levels. It is indefensible that our schools will have to wait another year for us to address this issue. Education funding is one of the defining issues our state faces as it looks to the future. We must find the political will to solve this problem. Our students deserve nothing less.
We established the ESA Task Force in February, bringing together stakeholders with diverse views on vouchers to help us find ways to improve the management and transparency of the ESA program. It’s been a productive, collaborative group. Already, we are working to select a new vendor for an improved payment system that will reduce the cumbersome processes families must now follow, and that will lessen the chance for fraud or misspending.
I am proud of the work the task force has done to improve the program, but I was dismayed to see politics get in the way of progress. Our department missed out on critical funds from the budget that our ESA team needs to manage workload capacity and to transition to the new payment system.
I am proud of what we accomplished this year and of the relationships we’ve built. It makes me optimistic about the possibilities the next legislative session holds as we commit ourselves to proactively building coalitions to find sustainable, effective solutions for education.
Kathy Hoffman is the Arizona superintendent of public instruction.