A decade before critical race theory became the subject of political outcry, Tom Horne was the face of a debate over ethnic studies, another cultural flashpoint.
Horne, then Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction was at the center of national controversy for hispolicies to prevent bilingual education and efforts to ban an ethnic studies program at Tucson Unified School District that emphasized Mexican contributions to society.
At the time, Horne argued that the ethnic studies program separated students by race, taught them that they are oppressed, and was influenced by Marxist and communist philosophies.
Twelve years later, Horne, who is seeking to reclaim the state’s top education job and unseat incumbent Superintendent Kathy Hoffman, is once again center stage in debates over race-related curriculum, parents’ rights, and LGBTQ issues—and he is deploying familiar rhetoric.
Horne first served as superintendent from 2003 to 2011. He says he wants to create a renewed focus on academics by eliminating critical race theory, social-emotional learning, and discussions of gender identity and sexuality in the classroom.
“My purpose to run is to get rid of the distractions, to focus on academics again, and get the kids’ learning up and their test scores up,” Horne said in an interview.
Hoffman is in many ways his opposite. The first educator to serve in the superintendent’s role in 20 years, she has used the position to help repeal a state law that banned schools from using sex education lessons that “promoted a homosexual lifestyle.” She has also bolstered the state’s social-emotional learning resources, expanded broadband Wi-Fi access to rural schools, and worked to lower the state’s student-to-school counselor ratio.
“I love this work,” Hoffman said. “I’m very passionate about being the chief advocate for public education in Arizona.”
The race for Arizona superintendent exemplifies a trend throughout the 2022 midterm elections nationally. Liberal Democrats favor better funding, teacher recruitment and retention efforts, and safe spaces for LGBTQ and other underserved students, while conservative Republican candidates promise parents they’ll prevent political indoctrination, place a check on what students are exposed to at school, and limit the presence of learning materials and books about gender identity, race, and sexuality.
“Just like we’re seeing across the country, [education], for whatever reason, has become an issue that divides Republicans and Democrats,” said Samara Klar, a government and public policy expert at the University of Arizona.
Confidence in schools falters
Cultural issues are hardly the only ones confronting schools in Arizona. The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, did not spare Arizona’s students. In the 2020-21 school year, 38 percent of the state’s students tested proficient or highly proficient in English/language arts, according to the Arizona Education Department. Even fewer students—30 percent—tested proficient or highly proficient in math.
Those numbers fall below the 42 percent of students who were proficient or highly proficient in both reading and math in 2018-19, before the pandemic.
The dropping scores are on top of statewide challenges hiring teachers: 26.6 percent of vacant teacher positions, or about 2,600, remained unfilled as of September, according to the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association.
The conditions have led to low confidence in the state’s school system. Nearly 70 percent of voters believe the state is headed in the wrong direction when it comes to education, according to a May survey of 500 likely voters conducted by Education Forward Arizona, a nonpartisan statewide nonprofit dedicated to improving the state’s educational attainment.
When asked about their top concerns when it comes to education, respondents ranked teacher pay, school funding, and teacher shortages highest, with 78 percent saying teacher salaries are too low and 66.2 percent saying the same of school funding.
The poll respondents hope to see nominees for superintendent and governor seats prioritize ensuring schools have quality teachers and principals, improving reading and math scores, and increasing opportunities for career and technical education.
Significantly fewer respondents expressed concerns about cultural issues in the poll. Thirty-three percent of respondents said they “strongly agree” with “opposing the teaching of critical race theory, reducing access to certain books, and preventing other controversial topics in the classroom.”
“Our voters this time have really put a stake in the ground saying, ‘Talk to us about how you’re going to solve these critical issues that are keeping our students from performing at the level we know they can,’” said Rich Nickel, president and CEO of Education Forward Arizona.
Horne uses legacy to fuel current campaign
Horne, who left the superintendent position to become the state’s attorney general in 2011, lays the blame squarely at the feet of the incumbent.
“Under Kathy Hoffman, my view is she has been diverted by other things like critical race theory, social-emotional learning, some [sexuality] things, and she hasn’t had the focus on academics,” he said.
In many ways, his priorities resemble those of his first time serving in the position. In addition to backing the ban on ethnic studies, he opposed bilingual education and established a program for English learners that separated them for four-hour blocks at a time to learn English skills. The U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights eventually found that aspects of that program violated federal law.
If elected, Horne said he plans to both enforce his previous ban on bilingual education and the law banning ethnic studies, which a federal judgein 2017ruled violated students’ constitutional rights because it “used discriminatory ends in order to make political gains.” Horne said he’s prepared to fight legal challenges to either effort.
“If I have to fight them, I’ll fight them,” he said.
Horne also plans to tackle critical race theory, the academic concept that says race is a social construct embedded into legal systems and policies. There isn’t evidence that critical race theory itself is being taught at Arizona schools, but that hasn’t stopped Horne from pushing against the concept and curriculum that resembles it.
He strongly opposes the 1619 Project, a New York Times initiative to reframe U.S. history by putting slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at its center. The Balsz Elementary School District in Phoenix piloted a program using the 1619 Project in its curriculum in 2020, according to a school district news release.
Horne has also expressed plans to put an end to social-emotional learning. Under Hoffman’s leadership, the state’s education department implemented new social-emotional competencies and resources for school districts.
“My heroes are history teachers who love history; science teachers who love science; math teachers who love math, and so on,” he said. “A number of them have talked to me, they want to teach their subject bell-to-bell, but they’re being forced to do social-emotional learning.”
Horne also hopes to put an end to the Q Chat Space, a platform for LGBTQ or questioning students to participate in online discussion groups with students ages 13 to 19, which he and his supporters say opens the door for students to be “groomed” by adults. The chatroom is listed on the Arizona Department of Education’s website as a resource for LGBTQ students.
Hoffman denies the chatroom allows students to be groomed.
“This resource is recommended by the CDC and Mental Health Association of America,” Hoffman said in a statement. “Even the AZ Department of Health led by appointees of Gov. [Doug] Ducey shares this resource. These attacks are strictly political.”
Horne’s supporters are excited by his plans to stop critical race theory, social-emotional learning, and the Q Chat.
Catherine Barrett, an English teacher in Arizona and former leader of the Arizona Red for Ed movement, which advocated for adequate school funding, said she also supports Horne’s commitment to discipline. The nominee plans to use his position to ensure every school has a school resource officer and that teachers aren’t afraid to discipline students.
“I know that Mr. Horne is not afraid of corrective action,” said Barrett, who endorsed Horne. “Parents are speaking up to him and the stories are heartbreaking. What has happened to education? We’re going to find some solutions.”
Hoffman focuses attention on teacher recruitment and pandemic recovery
While Horne has kept his focus on cultural issues like critical race theory and LGBTQ issues, Hoffman has used her campaign to call for more support for teachers and pandemic recovery for students.
Hoffman believes having an educator in the superintendent role is crucial. She began her career as a preschool teacher and later became a speech pathologist, teaching in Arizona’s Vail and Peoria school districts.
“We have had two decades of career politicians in this role and part of my motivation for the 2018 election was to change that narrative,” she said. “To have an educator lead education in Arizona is very important to me.”
Much of Hoffman’s first term was consumed by leading public schools through the COVID-19 pandemic. Now she’s prioritizing help for schools to overcome the lasting impacts of the pandemic.
For example, Hoffman has emphasized educator recruitment and retention. She plans to build upon a teacher residency program she established in her first term and advocate for teacher pay raises, smaller class sizes, and teacher resources.
“I see my role as helping to find innovative ways to create new pathways to teaching, to find ways to inspire the next generation of teachers, and advocating for improved teacher salary and benefits,” she said.
In addition to advocating for teacher recruitment and retention efforts, Hoffman plans to support student mental health by working with legislators to fill school counselor and social worker roles, expand access to broadband internet, and create inclusive environments within schools.
Hoffman attributes the recent low test scores and academic performance to disruptions to schooling during the pandemic. She hopes to help students improve by continuing to guide schools through using federal COVID-19 relief funds.
“What we have recognized and have learned as we look at the pandemic and the disruption to student learning is that the inequities that already existed were exacerbated,” Hoffman said. “We see that when we look at state assessment scores, looking at chronic absenteeism ... Where I see my role and the role of the department is to support in allocating the federal COVID relief funds.”
She opposes any notion, spread by Horne or other conservative politicians, that Arizona schools are falling victim to critical race theory or indoctrination.
“Critical race theory is not taught in Arizona schools, and I view it as an issue that is used to fuel distrust between the public and our public schools, which is frustrating and makes me sad,” she said. “I see my role as helping to build trust and relationships.”
Hoffman has earned an endorsement from the Arizona Education Association, the state’s leading teachers’ union. Marisol Garcia, president of the AEA, believes the midterm election will be a critical moment for the state’s educators.
“What’s at stake in this election is our ability to be treated as professionals and to make public education a priority and not a political steppingstone,” she said. “If Kathy Hoffman and [Democrat gubernatorial nominee] Katie Hobbs win, we’ll see nothing but a commitment to making sure Arizona students have the best experience they deserve.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 12, 2022 edition of Education Week as Divisions on Race, Gender Intensify a Fight for State Superintendent