Kathy Hoffman is in her sixth month as Arizona’s Superintendent of Public Instruction. In that time, she has demonstrated strong leadership towards improving Arizona’s public schools by endeavoring to make them safer, addressing the teacher shortage that plagues the state, championing increased funding for education, advocating for greater accountability, transparency, and oversight in all schools and visiting schools across the state to show her support and ascertain their needs.
Superintendent Hoffman’s influence (partial and full) during the first six months have already seen positive results for members of the ELL and LGBTQ communities with restrictive measures and policies nullified. She organized a commission to study measures the Department of Education could undertake to foster increased school safety. Her team is conducting an internal audit of the Department to determine areas that may need improving. Finally, she helped, along with the other legislative stakeholders, conclude a compromise with the families Navajo Reservation Students and their spending Empowerment Scholarship monies in a private school in New Mexico.
Superintendent Hoffman was gracious to take time to comment on her first six months in office by addressing a series of questions touching on the issues she has faced since her inauguration and getting adjusted to the office.
The questions and her responses are below:
- Has the position of Superintendent been what you expected thus far? Please explain.
“When I was running for office, people consistently asked me, “Why do you even want that job? It’s just an administrative job. You won’t have any real power.” So, when I assumed office, I braced myself for spending a good amount of time at my desk.
What I’m happy to report is that this sentiment was totally wrong. First, I’m rarely at my desk. I’ve spent as much time as I can traveling the state and hearing from teachers and administrators about the accomplishments they’re proud of and the challenges they’re facing so that I can better advocate for our schools’ needs at the state legislature or within the Department of Education. I’ve been to 10 out of Arizona’s 15 counties during my first six months in office, and I’ll visit the other five by the end of my first year.
I have been pleasantly surprised by the opportunity I’ve had to reimagine and find the potential in the role of State Superintendent. As the chief advocate for our public schools, I feel I have a lot of power to do things for the field.”
- To what extent has the Department of Education staff responded well to your leadership in the first six months? Please explain.
“One of the first things we realized when we joined the department was that our staff had very much been working in silos. While people had strong commitments to their work and to their teams, there hadn’t been much encouragement from department leadership to collaborate across the agency.
We have made progress in breaking down silos and encouraging cross-agency collaboration. As we build this culture, we will be better prepared to serve schools, students, and families.”
- To what extent has your team (chief of staff and others) positively adjusted to the demands of the jobs they have been entrusted with? Please explain.
“When I worked as a speech therapist, I relied heavily on a team of fellow educators, paraprofessionals, school psychologists, etc. to do my job well. That’s no different as State Superintendent, and I count myself incredibly lucky to have such a great team supporting me.
My first hire was my Chief of Staff, John Carruth, who was an Associate Superintendent in the Vail School District. We think we are the first Superintendent-Chief of Staff duo that are both educators (and with special education backgrounds). It has been immensely helpful to have John’s wealth of knowledge and experience leading a district as we work to lead this department.
We also reorganized our communications and policy teams and hired new leadership to guide this work. We were able to be extra-responsive at the state legislature during our first session and, thanks to our communications team, we’ve been transparent with internal and external folks about all the work we’re doing at the department – which is a lot.”
- With regards to your initial goals for running for Superintendent, what have been three positive developments in the first six months you have been in office?
“I had the best Valentine’s Day ever when Governor Ducey signed into law the bill that reduced the restrictions on the 4-hour ELL (English Language Learning) block. This law had previously required ELL students to spend four hours a day in English courses, even if that meant they had to forego electives, core coursework, and time in classes with their native-English speaking peers. It’s no surprise that because of policies like these, Arizona has the worst ELL graduation rates in the country.
Secondly, I never thought I’d be glad to be sued…but that was the case when I learned Equality Arizona sued me (as a representative of the state) over a bill that discriminated against LGBTQ students. This law had made it illegal for educators to “promote a homosexual lifestyle” in HIV/AIDS curriculum, which not only created a terrible stigma for Arizona’s LGBTQ students, teachers, and families, it also prevented educators from providing medically-accurate information to their students for decades.
I made it clear I would not defend this outdated and harmful law. The next day, Attorney General Mark Brnovich said his office would not defend it, either. Within a week, legislation to repeal this law was introduced, passed with bipartisan support, and was signed by the Governor.
A third positive development has been the formation of our ESA Taskforce. This bipartisan group is committed to improving the management of the ESA program. Already, the group is in the process of procuring a third-party payment system that will help prevent fraud and abuse.”
- What have been the two most rewarding experiences you have had so far as Superintendent?
“1. Visiting schools across the state and hearing about all the incredible achievements of our students and educators,
- Hearing from teachers that say they feel a lot of optimism for our profession and the future of Arizona public education.”
- How many school districts have you visited so far as Superintendent?
“I’ve visited 36 schools and traveled to 10 counties.
One need I hear nearly everywhere I go is the need for increased special education funding. In rural communities, I have also seen the greatest need for high-quality, full-time teachers, even for basic coursework like science and math.
Additionally, administrators and principals have shared with me their struggles to meet the coming minimum wage increase, considering schools received no additional funding for these increases.”
- With regards to your initial goals for running for Superintendent, what have been areas that have not proceeded, as you would have liked in your first six months you have been in office?
“I was definitely disappointed in the lack of funding we saw for public education this year. Post-session, we kept hearing that half the budget went to education-related expenses – but Arizona’s public education funding remains at pre-recession levels, and our teachers are paid at a rate that leaves us not even regionally competitive with states like Utah and New Mexico. You have to wonder – if the state won’t fully fund education during a year with a $1 billion surplus, when will it do so?
I was also disappointed that the Department of Education was not appropriated the full 4 percent of the funding that state law guarantees us to run the ESA program (we’re currently funded at 1.6 percent). We can’t serve our ESA families well if the department’s ESA team remains understaffed and under-resourced.”
- What have been the two hardest educational related issues you have been faced with as Superintendent? Please explain.
“One issue I did not expect to take so much priority in my first year is the future of statewide assessments and AzMERIT. When I assumed office, districts did not even know which test they would be giving students the next school year. However, I worked closely with the State Board of Education and legislature to develop a five-year plan for statewide assessments, which helps bring stability to the field and allows both families and schools plan for their students’ success.”
- To what extent do you feel you have established good working relationships with various stakeholders:
“It’s been a top priority of mine to build relationships and restore trust between the Department of Education and the Governor, the State Board, the legislature, and the public. I was grateful that so many lawmakers invited me to meet with them during my first few months in office, and overall we are proud of the collaboration we’ve fostered with leaders – in the state, in our schools, and in our communities – in just the first six months.”
- With regards to the final passage of the State Budget, which did not fund Education as much as you or others would like, do you believe it is time for a new Invest in Ed Ballot Initiative? Please explain.
“Arizona voters have made it clear: we must determine a long-term, sustainable funding source for public education. From conversations I’ve had across the state, including with lawmakers and business leaders, I think there is a lot of interest in getting that done, and I look forward to evaluating a range of proposals that will get us to that goal during the next legislative session.”
Superintendent Hoffman first six months has been a positive turnaround for Arizona’s schools and education stakeholders. Looking to build consensus among all groups, she and her team will continue to build on her experiences from the first half of 2019 and seek to compose solutions to the major issues Arizona public schools face that will move children’s education forward.