A look at the candidates for Arizona’s top education seat

Now that the dust has settled on a busy primary race for Superintendent of Public Instruction, Chamber Business News talked with both candidates vying for the seat.

A new poll out from OH Predictive Insights on Sept. 13 found that the Superintendent’s race is in a dead heat, with nearly 20 percent of voters still undecided.

Chief Pollster and Managing Partner Mike Noble said that Republican Frank Riggs is leading Democrat Kathy Hoffman by five points in rural communities while Hoffman has a two to one advantage among self-identified moderates.

“You’ll definitely see the number of undecided voters start to decrease once early voting begins,” he said.

Republican Frank Riggs

Former California congressman Frank Riggs won the Republican primary for Superintendent of Public Instruction after besting incumbent Diane Douglas. Riggs said his top three priorities are addressing the “acute and well-documented teacher shortage,” closing the achievement gap, and closing the skills gap in Arizona’s economy.

“I’m the only candidate with a proven record of executive, educational and legislative leadership,” he said. “I really feel that my career trajectory has ideally prepared me for the role and responsibilities of Superintendent of Public Instruction at a critical time for K-12 education in our state.”

As the former head of Arizona Connections Academy, an online charter school, Riggs said charters are “clearly meeting a demand on the part of the parents of 188,000 students currently enrolled.” But, Riggs said he would call for policy reforms to charter school governing boards that would require training and limit family and business relationships.

Riggs supports academic accountability, including providing schools the ability to opt-up to different exams. With the majority of third graders failing the state’s AzMERIT reading exam, he would address the “literacy crisis” by providing schools the resources for early intervention and small group instruction, while also limiting K-2 class sizes to no more than 20 students.  

“I want to make sure that we enforce the Move on When Reading law because reading is the foundation of all learning,” he said. “Until we do that almost any other discussion on K-12 education is moot.”

Riggs said he believes in parental empowerment and choice, and as superintendent he would guard against “fraud and abuse” of Education Savings Accounts.

He said he is a proponent of full immersion as quickly as possible for English Language Learners and believes it’s the Department’s responsibility to assesses if schools have the resources and infrastructure to serve students of all ability levels.  

Riggs’ full platform can be found on his website here.

Democrat Kathy Hoffman

Portland native Kathy Hoffman is a former preschool teacher and speech therapist who resigned her position to run for Superintendent of Public Instruction. Hoffman said her top three priorities are to be a positive voice for public education, to fight for competitive pay for all educators and to build “inclusive policies that are mindful of all our students’ needs.”

Hoffman said while she doesn’t have experience leading an organization, she has classroom experience.

“I saw firsthand the effects of the diminished resources for our students and for our teachers. As superintendent, I want to make sure I’m hiring highly qualified staff. It’s my responsibility to make sure that I’m coordinating and leading the department with transparency and integrity,” she said. “We’ve had about two decades of people without teaching experience leading our public schools and I realized that that’s part of the problem.”

An essential component of Arizona school accountability is state benchmark tests, which ensure schools are academically supporting students. Hoffman said she is a very data driven person and supports providing schools with academic data, but she has “issues” with AzMERIT and the current structure of school accountability.

“My concern is I don’t believe in punishing schools when kids are underperforming,” she said. “I believe in finding the root of the problem and providing with them the supports to help them keep moving in the right direction.”

The Superintendent also serves as a voting board member for the state’s largest charter authorizer. Hoffman said she believes all schools should provide “a good quality education,” but would want to “take a closer look” on whether academic or financially failing charter schools should be closed and wouldn’t “rely on one measurement.”

While she is a vocal opponent of Education Savings Accounts, Hoffman said she “would be committed to make sure the program is run well… and (would) adhere to the laws and policies established by our legislature and governor.”

Hoffman said she believes Arizona needs to repeal the four-hour block for English Language Learners and provide schools “more flexibility in how they can teach their ELL students.”  She would like to see the department offer more mediation to schools and parents with special education disputes.

Hoffman’s full platform can be found on her website here.

Megan Gilbertson

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