Four years ago it was widely assumed that David Garcia would be elected Superintendent of Public Instruction. His opponent, Diane Douglas, barely ran a visible campaign for the office. But due to a GOP voter registration edge in Arizona and mindless GOP tribalism in the voter booth, Diane Douglas won in the shocker of the 2014 election.

Douglas has been controversial and a complete disaster during her tenure as Superintendent of Public Instruction. This is why she was defeated for reelection in the GOP primary back in August. Hindsight is always 20-20. These Republican voters should have been more discerning back in 2014 instead of voting out of GOP tribalism. They could have saved everyone a lot of unnecessary trauma from the antics of Diane Douglas. Republicans should keep this lesson in mind this year.

The Arizona Republic endorses Democratic candidate Kathy Hoffman for Superintendent of Public Instruction. What’s the best quality to help Arizona public schools: Experience or energy?

The race for superintendent of public instruction hinges on the answer to one simple question: Is experience or energy needed more?

The superintendent doesn’t have the power to boost teacher pay or raise taxes to bolster education funding, the two issues driving current education debates. That’s up to the Legislature, the state Board of Education and local school boards.

But this race matters because the winner will oversee the Department of Education – which is basically broken [after the disastrous tenure of Diane Douglas].

There has been heavy turnover during outgoing superintendent Diane Douglas’s tenure. Many experts have left, and morale is in the tank for those who remain. Not surprisingly, this office is no longer producing the helpful training, reliable policy direction and robust student-achievement data that Arizona’s public schools need.

It needs a fixer – someone who can break up the status quo and reinvigorate the department.

How would they fix the office?

The good news is Republican Frank Riggs and Democrat Kathy Hoffman are keenly aware of this problem and have pledged to make reform a top priority if elected.

Riggs says he would surround himself with “big cause, low ego” people, while Hoffman says she intends to fill key posts with people from diverse backgrounds and points of view, including those that differ from her own.

Both say they would prioritize improving morale and refocusing the staff on core values, such as customer service.

And that’s important, because the Department of Education does some big – if behind-the-scenes – things. It disburses $6 billion in funding to the state’s district and charter schools. It also oversees statewide programs like early childhood, special education, gifted education and English as a second language.

Where else are they alike?

Hoffman and Riggs agree on other big-picture issues facing Arizona’s 1.1 million public-school students, such as:

  • Both agree that addressing the teacher shortage is among the top issues facing schools. They say improving teacher pay (and Hoffman notes that alleviating the heavy workload on teachers) will help. Riggs says that Arizona salaries should be benchmarked to other states in the Southwest.
  • Neither likes AzMERIT or how we’re using A-F letter grades. Hoffman disagrees that funding should be distributed to schools based on performance; rather, she says schools with high rates of poverty should get extra resources. Riggs says schools should be evaluated on more than their performance on a standardized test and that schools should be given a menu of tests they can choose to take that, unlike AzMERIT, can help us compare our performance to schools in other states.
  • Both are for improved financial accountability for charter schools, and both are against Proposition 305, though for different reasons. Hoffman said it takes money away from public schools; Riggs likes expanding school choice but says the 30,000-student voucher expansion should have given priority to low-income families.

How do they differ?

There are some key policy differences, however.

  • Hoffman was a proponent of Invest in Ed, a proposed income tax increase for education that was booted from the November ballot. Riggs was against it.
  • Hoffman prefers to boost funding with less regressive income or property taxes but says she’s open to a sales-tax increase, if that was the only politically viable option. Riggs says he wants to index per-pupil funding to growth first and explore a private-market loan program to help schools with their capital needs, in hopes of freeing more funding for the classroom.
  • They also differ on school safety: Hoffman says the solution isn’t with more School Resource Officers, but with hiring more school counselors. Riggs says we need more SROs and teacher training to identify troubled students.

So, who’s best for the job?

But here’s the clearest difference between the two candidates:

Riggs is 68. He served California in Congress [in the 1990s], where he chaired an education subcommittee. He was a member of a school board. He founded a charter school. He led a non-profit that helps charter schools grow.

Another charter school advocate on the inside after all of the charter school scandals in Arizona in recent years? Hell no, we don’t need that!

In 2014, Riggs unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for Governor of Arizona, finishing last in the Republican primary with less than five percent of the vote.

Hoffman, by contrast, is 32. She is a political novice who taught in public schools for six years and participated in the #RedforEd walkout this spring.

She has the energy.

Hoffman pulled off a surprise upset of a far more experienced David Schapira in the primary. She is a quick study, with an amiable personality and the ability to listen and set clear goals. She also knows the stark realities teachers face – a perspective that would come in handy as the department re-evaluates how it can best serve the state’s public schools.

Hoffman must make good on her promise of hiring diverse, experienced administrators to be successful.

But if this spring’s walkout taught us anything, it’s that a new generation of teachers are fired up and ready to make a positive difference in politics.

Hoffman deserves the chance to put that energy into action.

A public school educator in charge of public education in Arizona – what a novel idea! Let’s do that.

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