Arizona’s Tom Horne Hires “Super Cooper”

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 11, 2007 3 min read
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For at least the second time, Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne has hired someone for an important post in the Arizona Department of Education whose views on the education of English-language learners were widely publicized in statewide controversies related to such students.

Last month, Mr. Horne hired Kelt L. Cooper, 47, a former superintendent of the 6,400-student Nogales Unified School District, as the director of technical assistance for English-acquisition services of the state department of education. Mr. Cooper said in an interview with me this week that he was offered the job after he testified in federal court on behalf of the state in a 15-year-old battle regarding how the state pays for the education of English-language learners. A federal judge recently ruled for the second time in the case, Flores v. Arizona, that the state hasn’t produced legislation that provides adequate funding for the education of English-language learners. (See “Another Chapter in the Saga Over How to Pay for ELL Programs in Arizona.”)

Mr. Cooper said that the state already provides adequate funding for ELLs. He testified in January for Flores v. Arizona that when he was superintendent of the Nogales school district from 2000 to 2005, the district’s educators were able to significantly raise the test scores of English-language learners, along with all students, he said. The Nogales school district is at the center of Flores v. Arizona because the plaintiffs came from that school district.

But U.S. District Judge Raner C. Collins noted in his March 22 ruling that the plaintiffs in the case argue that one reason the Nogales school district was able to improve the achievement of its English-language learners was that its program costs for such students were $1,570 more per student than the base level normally provided by the state.

“The State Superintendent and State Legislators sing the praises of Mr. Kelt Cooper,” the judge writes in the ruling, noting that Mr. Cooper has been called “Super Cooper” for his work in the Nogales district. However, he writes, “the success or failure of the children of [the Nogales district] or any other school district should not depend on having a ‘Super Cooper’ at the helm.”

Still on board at the Arizona Department of Education is Margaret Garcia Dugan, who was involved in very public debates about the education of English-language learners before Mr. Horne hired her. While she was the principal at Glendale High School in Glendale, Ariz., she helped to lead the campaign in 2000 to get Proposition 203 passed, a ballot initiative that greatly curtailed bilingual education in the state. Now as Arizona’s deputy superintendent of public instruction--the No. 2 person in the education department next to Mr. Horne--she’s in charge of programs for English-language learners. (I wrote a profile of her in February 2006.)

Unlike Ms. Dugan, Mr. Cooper told me this week that he doesn’t have a strong view about whether English-only methods or bilingual education are more effective. Initially he had reservations about Proposition 203 because he thought local school districts should be free to determine what kind of programs were best for English-language learners, he said. Later he came to believe that Proposition 203 has been beneficial because it helped to standardize programs for English-language learners in the state.

“What I saw over the years was everyone was doing what they wanted and Proposition 203 eliminated that whole conflicting discussion. I thought, ‘I don’t have to contend with 900 views and philosophies on how students learn English. Let’s focus on best practices and systems management.’ ”

In his new job, which he began about a month ago, he’ll try to help school districts struggling to meet goals for English-language learners under the No Child Left Behind Act to improve their programs for such students. “If a kid is in the school system for ten years and the kid can’t write a paragraph in Spanish or English, there’s something wrong,” he said.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.