School & District Management

Common Core a Litmus Test in Arizona Education Chief’s Race

By Andrew Ujifusa — September 22, 2014 6 min read

The Common Core State Standards might be one of education’s most divisive issues, but in Arizona, the standards are having a unifying effect in the race for state superintendent, at least among some influential backers of the initiative.

Normally not inclined to back Democrats in high-profile state elections, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry decided earlier this month to endorse Democrat David Garcia for state chief. It cited his support for the standards and his position on charter schools.

In addition, three former state superintendents, including two Republicans, as well as the Arizona Republic newspaper, have endorsed Mr. Garcia, who has worked as an assistant director at the Arizona education department and as a peer consultant to the U.S. Department of Education.

His opponent is Republican Diane Douglas, who defeated incumbent Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal in the GOP primary last month. Ms. Douglas has made stopping the common core in Arizona the centerpiece of her campaign, declaring that the standards represent a takeover of local schools by the federal government and corporations.

Arizona lawmakers have stuck by the standards and rejected an anti-common-core bill earlier this year, although Mr. Huppenthal changed his position during the GOP primary, when he claimed he had actually opposed the standards.

The state’s intense focus on the common core shares the stage with school finance as top issues in this year’s campaign. Lawmakers are scrambling to respond to a state supreme court ruling last year, in Cave Creek Unified School District v. Arizona, that the state has violated the constitution by failing to increase education funding at the rate of inflation.

David Garcia, the Democratic nominee for state schools chief in Arizona, is a supporter of the Common Core State Standards.

Of particular concern for Arizona legislators is the extent to which, pending a court review, they will have to “pay back” schools by increasing budgets in future years to make up for the budgets in which inflation wasn’t funded. It’s the kind of school finance challenge that has bedeviled lawmakers elsewhere, including in Washington state, where the legislature has been hit by a contempt order for failure to come up with what that state’s high court considers adequate funding.

‘A Reformer’s Mindset’

Mr. Garcia has taken positions on the common core, finance, and other issues that have managed to win the Democrat support from the business community.

An associate professor at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University, he says the standards are an appropriate step toward having more rigorous expectations for students.

But just as important—and an area where Arizona needs to do a lot more work—is finding an appropriate way to hold students, schools, and teachers accountable for the extent to which they meet what the common core requires, Mr. Garcia said in an interview.

“We need to get beyond the letter-grade system in Arizona, where 96 percent of school grades are based on test scores,” Mr. Garcia said, referring to the state’s A-F school accountability system. The types of measures that should be added to state accountability, he said, include participation in career and technical education courses and Advanced Placement course performance.

Mr. Garcia said he supports “great choices within the public school system,” and he sits on the board of a charter school, the Arizona School for the Arts. But he’s opposed to the state’s newest—and growing—version of school choice, Empowerment Scholarship Accounts.

That program allows parents to take 90 percent of the state public school funds designated for one student, and instead use it on private school tuition and classroom materials. In Mr. Garcia’s view, the aid improperly deprives public schools of resources.

At the same time, Mr. Garcia said, a failed 2012 state ballot initiative to extend a tax increase and direct much of the additional money to K-12 did not represent a good solution to the state’s funding challenges. Schools shouldn’t simply demand more resources without explaining how they would improve student achievement, he said.

Diane Douglas, the GOP nominee for state chief, has made common-core opposition a key facet of her campaign.

The last time the Arizona Chamber of Commerce endorsed a Democrat for statewide office was in 2006, when it backed then-Gov. Janet Napolitano in her re-election bid.

A spokesman for the chamber, Garrick Taylor, said that Mr. Garcia’s past work shows that he does “really represent a reformer’s mindset.”

“Mr. Garcia understands the importance of giving parents and teachers the tools to understand how kids are performing, and how they stack up against their contemporaries around the block and around the globe,” Mr. Taylor said.

By contrast, he said, Ms. Douglas is merely running a “one-issue campaign against higher standards.”

Simmering Opposition

Ms. Douglas, who did not respond to numerous requests for an interview, has made her opposition to the common core a key facet of her campaign. For example, she said in an interview with radio station KQCK last month that the standards represent a Washington program that will impose a “one-size-fits-all” education system on students while a few big corporations benefit.

She also stressed that the common core could be opposed on principle regardless of its content, although she warned that the initiative requires a new system of teaching math, “when very simple ways will work.”

“They don’t belong to us like our old standards did in Arizona,” Ms. Douglas told the radio station.

The common core is not the sole facet of her campaign, however. Ms. Douglas, who has served on a local school board in Arizona, has also highlighted her opposition to allowing English-language learners to be exempt from certain testing requirements.

In a debate last month with Mr. Huppenthal before the GOP primary, she also decried what she deemed local school boards’ loss of power to unelected business interests and to K-12 advocacy groups such as Expect More Arizona, a coalition of corporations, school administrators, and higher education officials that lobbies for closing achievement gaps and properly funding schools. Such groups want to dictate what is best for children, instead of leaving it to parents, in her view.

“We need a leader in our state department of [education] that will get these people out of the way and stop giving unelected power so much power over your children,” she said.

Whether or not Ms. Douglas wins, it’s probably too late to turn back the clock and eliminate the common core in Arizona entirely, said Jonathan Butcher, the education director at the right-leaning Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix-based think tank that opposes the standards. (Neither he nor the institute has endorsed a candidate in the state chief’s race.)

But Mr. Butcher highlighted a vote this month by the Gilbert school board to officially oppose the common core, proving in his view that opposition to the standards still has life. A common-core compromise in the state could involve flexibility on the standards for some charter schools, Mr. Butcher suggested.

“Charter schools were meant to be unique alternatives to traditional public schools,” he said. “And they have told me directly that they are grappling with the idea that the common core is changing what and how, and in what sequence, they teach materials.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 24, 2014 edition of Education Week as Common Core Proving Litmus Test in Arizona State Chief’s Race

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