The divide between Gov. Doug Ducey and the state schools chief and teachers grew after his Jan. 11 State of the State speech.
Ducey threw the education community into chaos when he said “we will not be funding empty seats or allowing schools to remain in a perpetual state of closure.”
Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman and many public education interests and journalists interpreted the line of the address to mean he wants to end funding for virtual learning.
“Children still need to learn, even in a pandemic,” Ducey said.
Hoffman said immediately after the speech that Ducey is ignoring the worsening spread of Covid and its severe effect on students and teachers and that he was contributing to the “toxic environment where teachers, board members, and superintendents are harassed for making data-driven decisions.
Richie Taylor, the communications director for Hoffman, said the Department of Education was as confused as everyone else after the speech – mainly because the governor hadn’t communicated with Hoffman’s office beforehand.
“Our initial understanding was that they were going to defund distance learning,” he said.
Ducey’s office quickly clarified that Ducey is not advocating to rip away funding for schools in distance learning, instead saying he was promoting Arizona’s longstanding policy of allowing parents to choose school districts and directing funding to follow the students to whatever school their parents choose.
“This misunderstanding and this confusion could have been avoided if they had reached out and told us what they were going to say,” Taylor said.
In an interview with Arizona Capitol Times on January 13, Hoffman said she has found it difficult to work with Ducey lately because he won’t include her or any other school leader before he makes announcements that affect the education community. She said she has not spoken to Ducey directly for quite some time.
Ducey and his team have made a habit of not communicating with stakeholders or warning education officials about pending announcements, including in October, when Ducey claimed he was working with school leaders to modify the health benchmarks for reopening. Hoffman immediately stated she did not ask for the modification, nor did any other school leaders – Ducey’s office had to walk back that claim.
“We always want to have ongoing communication with the Governor’s Office,” Taylor said. “Things work better when we are working together for the education community and for students and teachers.”
The alliance Hoffman and Ducey built early in the pandemic has now soured, Hoffman said, and it has put her in the position of taking the state’s top elected official to task over decisions she does not agree with in the area in which more than 1 million people elected her to lead.
Hoffman said the overall tone of his speech was “disrespectful to teachers” and that she wasn’t satisfied with his office’s response to the “empty seats” flub. She noted that the state is only funding students taking advantage of virtual learning at 95% of the level as in-person students, even though virtual learning is more expensive because many students need laptops and wifi, and teachers need training on how to conduct a class virtually.
“We currently have a budget surplus for the state as well as the $1 billion rainy day fund. So there is no excuse to not fully fund our schools,” Hoffman said, adding that she wished Ducey had focused on policy solutions in the speech.
She mentioned tensions are still high over the governor shorting some schools that were set to earn enrollment stabilization grants, and didn’t think it was a major request because of where the state is financially.
“The majority of our schools are either in some sort of hybrid or distance learning mode right now. So I think our schools need to hear that commitment. I would have also liked to hear a commitment to make up for that to make up for those dollars,” Hoffman said. “Why not use the funding that was already budgeted for schools to make their budget whole.”
Hoffman has repeated that she didn’t think Ducey was doing enough for teachers with everything they’ve had to go through during the pandemic adding onto an already stressful job, especially in Arizona.
She said it was just another part of his speech that “disappointed” her.
Hoffman said she wouldn’t go as far as saying Ducey doesn’t care about the teachers, something teacher groups have claimed on social media, but she said he’s just not accessible likely because of how divisive everything has been.
Hoffman and Ducey led together to manage schools when the state of emergency began, but cutting communication with her soured the relationship, she said, citing his ignoring of health benchmarks and cutting the funding of the stabilization grants as two examples that caused her and education officials to lose trust in his ability to lead.
The greatest disappointment, she said, is how Arizona is having the worst outbreak right now and nothing is being done to help.
“I’m just having a hard time understanding how the governor is not seeing the connection or the impact that [Covid] is having on our schools and their ability to be in-person,” she told Capitol Times. “It’s that disconnect that makes it really hard for me to work with him.”
About half of Ducey’s speech addressed Covid and his administration’s efforts to manage public health and the economy during the pandemic.