Spat Between Arizona Superintendent and State Board Roils On

By Daarel Burnette II — March 29, 2016 4 min read
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Arizona legislators’ inability to intervene in an ongoing dispute between Diane Douglas, the state’s elected superintendent and the state’s 10 governor-appointed board members could cause governance issues down the road, board members say. Douglas said the legislatures’ attempt to intervene was flawed and unneccessary.

The legal spat—which started over a disagreement over who in the department reports to whom—has made monthly meetings awkward and tense and has stunted the state’s ability to come up with new standards. And on the cusp of the Every Student Succeeds Act where states have more flexibility to create their own school accountability and teacher-evaluation systems, there appears to be a fundamental disagreement between board members and Douglas on what their roles are.

Arizona isn’t the only state facing these tensions.

It’s an issue I wrote about in this week’s Education Week.

From the story:

It's a volatile moment for power sharing. This legislative session, state board members in a number of states have spent time stalking the capitol chambers to block or modify legislation that would drastically alter state standards or prescribe the details of statewide accountability systems. Board members, who convene in Washington [April 3-6] for their legislative conference, argue that they are in a unique position to set state education agendas in the ESSA era. With many state education departments hollowed out by budget cuts and the average tenure of state superintendents now three years, state boards argue that they represent a permanent fixture focused exclusively on statewide education policy.

Nowhere has the battle over who controls education policy been as acute as it is in Arizona.

Douglas, an anti-common-core activist who was elected in 2014, started her relationship with the board on the wrong foot when she fired two staff members who worked for the board. After board members complained, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey reversed the order, and Douglas, also a Republican, sued, arguing that the superintendent manages employees, not the board. A judge later ruled against her. She has appealed the ruling.

Soon, the board moved its staff a few blocks away, setting off a fight over who had access to the department’s teacher files, which sat at the department’s headquarters. The board sued her to get access to the files.

Since then, Douglas says the board has rejected her offer of meditation, an accusation the board denies.

The state’s senate passed a bill this year, SB1416, that would place several of the department’s employees under the board’s watch. (A similar bill was proposed last year but failed in the house.) The house, which has generally been sympathetic to Douglas, again rejected the measure last week.

“The bill wasn’t acceptable,” Douglas said shortly after the house vote.

In the coming months, the board and the department will have to review the state’s standards after the board repealed the standards to do so in October last year.

But the board has mostly left the department out of that process, Douglas said, instead leaving it up to a committee of teachers and parents to chose the new standards. The process the board has chosen, Douglas said, is cumbersome and unproductive and could take more than two years to complete.

“Who knows how long this will grind on,” she said.

In addition to reviewing the state’s standards, the board and the department will have to come up with a school accountability system and a new teacher evaluation to comply with ESSA.

Douglas calls the new law, which shifts much of education policymaking from federal to state control, too “prescriptive” for her taste and said because the legislation deals mostly with the state complying with federal policy, the department, she and her staff—not the board—will handle it.

“Most of this work regards the relationship between the feds and the department,” Douglas said. “This is about us coming up with a plan on how we’re going to implement the various pieces and bringing it to the feds to make sure we are in line. That’s not really policy work. That’s administrative work, and that’s the role of the department.”

Carter, who emphasized that he doesn’t speak on behalf of the entire board (other board members didn’t return my calls), said the department acts at the will of the board.

“The state board is a policymaking board,” said Carter. “We can pass laws and, in many cases, there are policies that need to be developed around those. The state superintendent Is obligated to enforce the laws and the policies.”

As for who will be calling the shots under ESSA, Carter said, “Arizona is a local control state, so Arizona welcomes the turn of authority to the state, and we’ll follow state constitutional principles as to who’s obligated to make those decisions,” Carter said.

Carter summed up the state’s education problems pretty succinctly: figuring out a way to do more with less (Arizona has one of the country’s lowest per-pupil funding); disparities between the way the state funds district schools and charter schools; figuring out a way to monitor the state’s private school industry as the state roles out its voucher system; and now ESSA.

The dispute between the board and Douglas has made it very difficult to start tackling those issues, Carter said.

“I think, clearly, there are fundamental disagreements between the board and the state superintendent,” Carter said. “Her view is different from a great, great majority of the board. I don’t think it has anything to do with disliking each other. These are fundamental issues that need to be resolved. I’d rather the court or the legislature resolves it.”

A petition started by a local teacher to recall Douglas failed late last year.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.