School & District Management

Education Policy Issues Caught in Arizona Crossfire

By Andrew Ujifusa — June 09, 2015 6 min read
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Disagreements between Arizona’s education chief and other state officials could complicate the state’s work on academic standards, school finance, and other issues.

Gov. Doug Ducey and Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas were both elected last year as Republicans, but their relationship hasn’t been particularly smooth. Disputes between Ms. Douglas and the governor, along with other officials including state board President Greg Miller, have included K-12 governance and even the physical location of state board staffers’ offices.

In some respects, the tension in Arizona mirrors the multiyear battle between Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, and GOP elected and appointed officials in that state, including Gov. Mike Pence. In Indiana, Ms. Ritz has fought Gov. Pence and others over control of the state school board and testing, among other issues.

“There’s an unspoken impact inside school buildings. And that has to do with the way you choose, as a state, to spend your emotional capital,” said Timothy L. Ogle, the executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association, referring to the state officials’ political fight. “It’s just not a good use of time and energy.”

Who Do They Work For?

Ms. Douglas won a Republican primary vote last year against then-Superintendent John Huppenthal, after making opposition to the Common Core State Standards a central element of her campaign. She then topped Democrat David Garcia in the general election.

A key moment in the tensions that have arisen since then was Ms. Douglas’ decision to fire the state school board’s top two staffers, Executive Director Christine Thompson and Deputy Director Sabrina Vasquez, in February. Ms. Douglas argued that she ultimately had hiring and firing power over the employees. Ms. Douglas said she fired them because they had refused to report to her. In her position, Ms. Thompson had previously advocated on behalf of the common core.

Mr. Miller opposed the move, and Gov. Ducey reinstated the two staffers countering that Ms. Douglas had no power to fire them. (With the exception of Ms. Douglas, Gov. Ducey appoints state board members to four-year terms.)

Diane Douglas The Arizona schools' chief has clashed with other state officials on governance and K-12 policy topics.

Last month, after the board voted to move its executive staff out of the education department’s offices, Ms. Douglas filed a complaint with Maricopa County Superior Court seeking to clarify her control over the staff and saying they should move back to her department.

State law indicates that Ms. Douglas can make staffing recommendations to the board, and the state department’s website says that she may “direct the work” of board employees. Hiring and firing isn’t explicitly mentioned.

The state board, in turn, has ordered the superintendent to grant the board full access to files in her office, and voted to block Ms. Douglas from controlling the board’s administrative matters.

Antipathy to Ms. Douglas goes beyond fellow state officials. An effort is also underway to recall her, although it remains unclear if the campaign, led by Phoenix teacher Anthony Espinoza, will be able to get 364,000 signatures (25 percent of all ballots last year) required to put a recall election on the ballot.

‘No Conversation’

A spokesman for the Arizona education department, Charles Tack, speaking on behalf of Ms. Douglas, rejected the notion that she relishes the conflict that’s now in court. “It’s something that she really would have liked to have avoided altogether,” he said.

He noted that legislators could have resolved the question of authority over state board staff, but declined to approve a bill addressing the issue.

The tug of war between the superintendent and other state officials is in some respects a political battle, but it also has the potential to affect key policy issues, including the one that propelled Ms. Douglas’ campaign.

Gov. Doug Ducey The governor and the state superintendent have disagreed over school finance and the common core.

Ms. Douglas and her allies were frustrated in their common-core opposition after lawmakers rejected a bill to repeal the common core this year. In April, however, the state board did agree to create a committee including Ms. Douglas, members of the business community, and education officials that will review the common core. (This followed a request to do so from Gov. Ducey.) Its recommendations will be released by the end of the 2015-16 school year.

Asked if Ms. Douglas was worried that her legal fight with the state board would hamstring her efforts to roll back the common core as the state undertakes its review, Mr. Tack replied that she was “willing to work with the board” during the process. Although she would prefer standards other than the common core, her focus now is to gradually improve the standards so that teachers aren’t unduly disrupted, he added.

But Mr. Miller, the state board president, stressed that a consistent lack of collaboration between Ms. Douglas and the board on a variety of policy issues, such as Arizona’s move to change its A-F school accountability system, was hindering the state’s K-12 work.

Referring to his personal relationship with Ms. Douglas, Mr. Miller, who began serving on the board in 2010, he said, “There’s been no conversation.”

He added that he hoped and expected Ms. Douglas would stick to “her issues with the actual standards themselves” while serving on the common-core-review panel.

A spokesman for Gov. Ducey, Daniel Scarpinato, dismissed the notion of a big rift between the superintendent and the governor, saying they have a good relationship and adding that the conflict “is really between the superintendent and the board at this point.”

Money Questions

Ms. Douglas and Mr. Ducey also disagree about the nature and pace of changes to school spending.

Last month, the governor launched the Classrooms First Initiative Council charged with overhauling school finance to “ensure more funding for teachers and classrooms and instruction.” Ms. Douglas, Gov. Ducey, and Mr. Miller, among others, will all serve on the council.

Yet last week Ms. Douglas indicated that she thought the group’s December deadline for filing its final recommendations is too soon to come up with truly meaningful changes to K-12 funding.

Separately, mediation is underway between the state and various education groups about the extent to which the state will provide schools additional money for previous years of underfunding. The state Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that during the economic recession, Arizona had failed to abide by a 2000 ballot initiative approved by voters that requires school funding to be adjusted annually based on the rate of inflation.

For fiscal 2016 the state, which is ranked 48th among states in per-pupil spending according to a recent U.S. Census report, provided $74 million earmarked for an inflationary increase. But Mr. Ogle of the administrators’ association characterized it as a “passive acknowledgement without correcting the past indiscretions.” Last year, legislative analysts estimated that the total “back pay” figure owed by the state could be as high as $1.2 billion from fiscal 2015 through fiscal 2019.

However, last week, Gov. Ducey introduced a plan to increase school spending by $2.2 billion over the next decade without a tax increase by boosting the share of funding schools receive from state-trust land.

A version of this article appeared in the June 10, 2015 edition of Education Week as Education Policy Issues in Arizona Crossfire

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