The race for superintendent of public instruction has historically struggled to garner voters’ attention and donors’ dollars.
And this election cycle is proving no different even with the energy that erupted from Red for Ed earlier this year.
But in allowing that old attitude to take hold, the GOP is failing to capitalize on the moment, and that could cost Republicans the office responsible for implementing education policy and distributing billions in school funding.
Christine Thompson may be most known for the drama that very publicly unfolded when Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas tried to fire her from her position as executive director of the State Board of Education in 2015.
But over the past four years she also experienced a different sort of “whirlwind” as the rising president and CEO of Expect More Arizona, an advocacy group for world class education, and she is raising twin boys.
The experience has given her a new perspective on a world she has played a role in since she was the state House Education Committee intern. That was her introduction to state policy, and she’s been hooked ever since.
How has your involvement in the education sphere impacted your approach to your own children’s education?
It definitely gives me a different lens, and I have a different appreciation now that I have kids as consumers of the system. I’ve talked to several friends about school choice and how wonderful it is to have school choice. But at the same time, making that choice, for those of us who have the luxury to be able to do it, is hard because there is rarely a perfect choice for your kid. I hope it makes me a little less of a “helicopter parent” because I am keenly aware of the professionals that educators are, and I want them to be the leaders.
What’s the plan for your boys moving forward? Sticking to district schools or taking a different route?
We live in a very strong district, so I think we’ll stay with the district. But it’s going to depend on what their needs are. I’m going to let their needs dictate where we end up going.
So, you’re making a transition over to Expect More Arizona. But you were just at Achieve 60 AZ where the focus is on the college attainment rate. Why is that so important for Arizona right now?
We’re behind. The whole nation really is behind where we need to be. The greater the amount of post-high school attainment a person has, the less likely they are to be unemployed, the higher their earnings are, the less likely they are to be involved in criminal activity or requiring social safety net services. We really see the increasing post-high school attainment as a mechanism to raise the economic success not just of individuals but also of the state.
Expect More on the other hand has several goals for the state to work toward. Does any one stand out to you?
In the years I’ve been involved in education at various levels, there’s always K-12 – talking about K-12 issues. Early ed, pre-K talks about their issues. Higher ed is in their own space. And it’s been a relatively recent phenomenon that they are cross-pollinating more. And I think the (Arizona Education) Progress Meter is the perfect example of how intertwined all of those sections are. You can’t expect to have increased attainment if you’re failing on the lower end of the goals. If you’ve got low participation in quality pre-K programs or third grade reading is low and eighth grade math is low . . . all of these things are building blocks to meet that attainment goal.
Why do you think Arizona’s education system is at the point it is now?
We have a number of challenges, and some of them are not unique to Arizona. Educators in general have a challenge being viewed as the professionals that they are in part because everyone has experienced a classroom. Funding has been very difficult over the years. Our resources are shrinking, and our population is growing. We’ve also had an environment where we have pushed innovation, which is a good thing, but at the same time, we’ve done so at a pace where we might not understand how well things are being implemented. It’s been about the change-of-the-week.
What was that feud with Diane Douglas like for you?
It was a challenge. I think the superintendent and her staff were doing what they thought was in their best political interest, and that’s what I was doing for the board – ensuring that constitutional body had its appropriate representation. It was an interesting political time to be involved in, and it will probably always be associated with my name, which I’m not sure how I feel about. It is what it is. It happened, and I think it’s good for the state that it’s been resolved. But it’s always going to be a part of some cocktail party conversation wherever I am. I’ve had people tell me my name sounds familiar, and I’m like, “Yeah, you may have seen me on TV.”
You and your deputy at the time, Sabrina Vasquez, actually returned to the office after being “fired.” How awkward was that?
We knew we had a job to do and we continued to do it. It was a challenging time. And it was awkward because the state board offices at that time were on the fourth floor, same as the superintendent’s office, and uh, there’s only one ladies’ room on that floor.
Were you satisfied with how that ended?
I’m just happy it was resolved, frankly. I think it’s healthy that there is now a clear separation in the budget and in statute between the state board and the superintendent.
What do you think of Douglas now? Is she the right person for that job?
She’s doing a fine job as superintendent, but I think there’s more that could be done. There’s times when state boards work very closely with superintendents. There’s times when state boards and superintendents don’t get along. And it really is a cycle. It happens more often than you might realize in the press. In this last round, there was a lot more tension between the elements. There’s a lot of work to be done to build those coalitions back to where they were before, and I don’t know that the superintendent has yet been successful at doing that.
Matthew Simon’s path to his current position as the Goldwater Institute’s new director of education policy may be surprising.
After graduating from Arizona State University, he joined Teach for America, a nonprofit organization that sends teachers into low-income areas, and he taught in the Earle School District in rural Arkansas. He said the organization is often pegged as “a bunch of liberal, young kids,” but it made him more steadfast in his beliefs in school choice and liberty.
Did you take anything from that particular experience that you would pass on to Arizona teachers?
I didn’t have a projector in my room. I didn’t even have a computer for a teacher in my room. I had textbooks that were ten years old. And I think we sometimes let those limitations stop us from doing what we need to do. There are a million ways to teach a lesson, and as long as you have high expectations for your students and that comes out in your lesson and you’re moving forward, those things don’t stop you.
Why didn’t you keep teaching?
Deciding whether or not to stay in the classroom was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made. It’s not one that’s made lightly for anybody. I loved my school and my community, but the school culture and the administration and the leadership just wasn’t something I wanted to continue with. … And I think that’s something we lose sight of. All of my friends are still teaching, and they’re teaching in schools that serve low-income students and students where an achievement gap is present, but there’s a great leader. And if there had been a great leader at my school, maybe that decision might have been different for me.
Now that you’re here in this position, what are your priorities going to be?
As has been the long-standing tradition, promoting, expanding and protecting school choice and parents’ rights to choose the best education for their children, hands down, is pivotal. I think it’s something that is ingrained in our culture in Arizona and it’s something we’ve led on.
Connected with all that is continuing to look at other education policies, like the school finance system. Making sure students, regardless of which educational choice they make, are all receiving the same financing. … It’s important when we look at school districts, which are essentially taxing jurisdictions, that we also look at taxpayer equity.
There’s been a butting of heads with folks like yourself and advocates of a more traditional public school model. That’s manifested into things like a mass “sick-out” that led to the closure of nine schools in the West Valley one Wednesday. What do you think of those actions?
When I think about what happened at Pendergast Elementary School District, I think about my students. The fact that a choice was made for students just hasn’t been covered at all by the media. …I know the blood, sweat and tears that goes into it. I would love to see dollars that are flowing through the public education system get further into the classroom and into teachers’ pockets.
What’s concerning for me… is losing sight of the students who are supposed to be at the center of it. We talk about dollars or institutions or types of educational models, but we forget that students are at the heart of it. I don’t care where a student goes. I want them to have the best opportunities. I think about all the kids I taught – would I prevent them (from making a choice), just so they had to be at Earle (School District in Arkansas) to receive an education? No. I’m picturing all of their faces right now, and I want them to go wherever works best for them to succeed at the highest level.
When nine schools are closed… students were the ones hurt that day.
Do you think teachers have good reason to be frustrated?
I think they should be frustrated, but I don’t think they should be frustrated at the Arizona Legislature and policymakers. We have a very decentralized education system where locally elected school boards and independent charter schools make finance decisions. … When we talk about holding elected officials accountable, there are over 240 boards of elected officials that don’t tend to be held as accountable as other elected officials even though they manage those billions of dollars.
The state Supreme Court is allowing Proposition 305 to go to the November ballot. Was that the right decision?
I’m not an attorney, so I won’t opine on the legal questions. But it was disappointing, and I think that was because of the decision on when a law went into effect and who had standing. The actual merits of the case weren’t actually discussed, and that’s disappointing. And, obviously, I’m disappointed because I view what the Legislature did very positively. When I think about all the kids who don’t have an opportunity, another choice to get themselves out of a bad situation or when we talk about climbing out of poverty or inequality–that opportunity was taken away from them.
What would you like to see legislators do with that legislation now? Would you be comfortable with compromising on a replacement bill?
I would love to see the Legislature act to make sure students have an opportunity. If the SOS Arizona folks could come to the ground on making sure more kids have access to opportunities, then that would be extremely surprising and satisfying. But I hope there would be a common ground where students still got the opportunity to exercise a choice.
What about your own educational background? District school? Private? Charter?
I was born and raised in Tucson, Marana Unified School District. Myself, my brother, my ten cousins all went through the same school district. We were lucky to have such amazing schools in our neighborhood, which not every kid has. … Not everybody gets from it what I did. That’s why I want more choices, so everybody, regardless of where they live, can do that.
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