Kathy Hoffman – Echo Magazine

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By Jeff Kronenfeld, November 2019 issue.
Photos courtesy of the Arizona Department of Education

Kathy Hoffman, Arizona’s superintendent of public
instruction, knows the moment she decided to run for office: the confirmation
hearing for U.S. Secretary of Education in 2017. If you remember this, it’s
likely for when Betsy DeVos said schools need guns in case of bear attacks.
That year, Arizona ranked as the worst state for teachers in the U.S. according
to a study by WalletHub. Diane Douglas, Hoffman’s predecessor, was more focused
on issues like banning the word evolution from science classrooms and
prosecuting teachers involved in the #RedForEd movement. The Copper State’s
education system was a national punchline.

Hoffman was
a 31-year-old speech-language pathologist in the Peoria Unified School District
during the DeVos confirmation. She realized educators like herself had to stand
up if things were going to change. When teachers walked out to demand an
increase in school spending, Hoffman marched with them. She proved a formidable
debater, defeating tough candidates in the primary and general elections. This
victory made her the state’s first Democratic superintendent of public
instruction in over 20 years. The book she opted to be sworn in with — “Too
Many Moose” — was a favorite of her students. Winning also made her the
youngest currently serving state-wide political office holder in the country.
As when she is in the classroom, she advocates for all students and teachers in
Arizona.

Hoffman
knows how far a good education can take you. She grew up in Portland, Oregon.
In high school, a Japanese immersion program taught her to speak that language
fluently. It also gave her a chance to visit Japan as an exchange student. At
the University of Oregon, she earned a bachelor’s degree in Japanese studies.
After a year teaching preschool, Hoffman traded temperate rainforests for
deserts. Tucson and the University of Arizona beckoned. There she earned a
master’s degree in speech-language pathology. This combined her twin loves of
language and teaching. A true polyglot, the Superintendent also speaks Spanish
fluently. When she graduated from UofA in 2013, Arizona had become home.
Hoffman started work as a speech-language pathologist in the Vail Unified
School District.

Kathy Hoffman being sworn in by former Chief Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court Scott Bales.

Her five
years in Arizona schools inform Hoffman’s priorities as superintendent today.
Number one on her list is to return education spending to pre-recession levels.
Other goals include improving teacher retainment, expanding access to mental
health services and ensuring an equitable distribution of resources. Hoffman
praised increases in funding for counselors and raises for teachers included in
the 2020 budget. She said it was disheartening to see a surplus of nearly $400
million go to tax cuts instead of restoring school funding.

Her battles
are not limited to finances. Arizona lags behind other states in protecting
LGBT+ students and providing scientifically accurate sex education. Hoffman has
worked valiantly to reverse these trends. In a speech to the state legislature
early in her term, she called for the repeal of Arizona’s blatantly
discriminatory “no promo homo” law. It was finally axed earlier this year.
After this, Hoffman proposed further updates to Arizona’s sex ed guidelines.
The changes included requiring information in sex ed classes to be medically
and scientifically accurate. The Gilbert-based nonprofit Family Watch
International (FWI) — designated as an anti-LGBT+ hate group by the Southern
Poverty Law Center — encouraged opposition to the updates. The Arizona State
Board of Education did not vote to approve Hoffman’s proposal.

In the
aftermath of the June vote, Republican politicians and rightwing extremist
groups have continued to target Hoffman with false attacks. She takes it all in
stride, remaining focused on her work as superintendent. When she’s not on the
road visiting school districts around the state, she swims and practices yoga.
Despite facing chronic underfunding and opposition from billionaire-backed dark
money groups, Hoffman remains upbeat about Arizona’s future. “I’m relentlessly
optimistic because I know what Arizona’s students and teachers can achieve if
we give them the resources they need,” Hoffman wrote by email. “We have
tremendously talented, dedicated teachers in this state and some of the
brightest students in the nation. It is up to us as state leaders to deliver
for them.”

Echo: What was the moment you decided
to run for Superintendent of Public Instruction and how did your experience
working in Arizona schools impact your decision?

Hoffman: I decided to run for this office
after watching the confirmation hearings of Betsy DeVos. As I watched her
struggle to answer basic education questions, it was clear that she had never
spent any significant time in a public school. I knew that if we were ever
going to see any positive changes in education, educators like myself needed to
stand up and lead. 

Can you discuss why your
grassroots campaign was successful and how you got it started?

When I started my campaign, it had been over 25 years
since an educator oversaw the Arizona Department of Education. Linking stories
of my students and colleagues to the challenges facing public education, I
traveled across the state to meet with voters who were ready for an educator to
lead our public schools. Thanks to the support of voters in every corner of the
state and the dedication of my campaign staff, I became the youngest woman
elected to statewide office in 2018. 

Would you explain how the effort
to repeal Arizona’s “no promo homo” law earlier this year succeeded?

For decades, this law has hurt our LGBTQ students and
families. During my inaugural “State of Education” speech to the Legislature, I
directly called for its repeal. In the months that followed, the state was
sued, the Attorney General announced he would not defend the law in court, and
the Legislature quickly realized it had no choice but to repeal the law. In a
sense, it was the perfect storm of events, but we wouldn’t have been successful
without individuals standing up and demanding change. Senator Martín Quezada’s
leadership on this issue over the years also helped lay the groundwork that
allowed us to be successful. 

Tell us about some of the updates
you proposed to the state’s sex education guidelines and why you think the
Arizona State Board of Education failed to implement them?

Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman.

After the repeal of “no promo homo,” my colleagues in the
Legislature and I decided to take other minor changes to the State Board
for its consideration. These changes would have cleaned up language from the
same era as “no promo homo” in State Board rules and would have ensured that,
if and when, local districts choose to implement sex education curriculum, that
any curriculum implemented be medically and scientifically accurate. I felt the
changes merited discussion and consideration, but I can’t speak to why other
board members voted the way they did.

You have been the subject of ugly
and false attacks by Republican politicians and a dark money group funded by
billionaire Betsy DeVos. How do you confront this as an elected official and
handle it as a human being?   

I have been surprised at the personal nature of the
attacks, but I take them in stride and remain focused on our mission of
providing a high-quality education to every student in Arizona. As elected
state leaders, we must serve our state by collaborating on policies even when
our perspectives differ. I’ll continue to reach out and try to work with
leaders from both parties because its best for our students and best for our
state. 

What are the most important
issues facing Arizona’s schools and education system?

A top priority for Arizona schools is restoring funding to
pre-recession levels, and I’m hopeful that we can come together to find a bipartisan
solution on this issue. In the meantime, my administration is committed to
holistically supporting our education system. To find innovative ways to
attract new educators and retain our dedicated, high-quality teachers, I’ve
created two new positions specifically focused on teacher recruitment and
retention. Additionally, I’ve prioritized the mental health and well-being of
our students by partnering with state and community agencies to bring those
supports directly to our classrooms. Finally, to ensure that all students have
access to a high-quality education, we must focus on addressing inequities
across our education system. To meet this need, I hired Arizona’s first-ever
Associate Superintendent of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion earlier this year.

How can people help Arizona’s
education system and the LGBT students within it?

Schools bind communities together, so finding any opportunity to support your local schools can make a difference. I cannot understate how important it is for people to make their voices heard at both the local school board level and the Legislature, especially when it comes to being a voice for our LGBTQ students. We need people to be champions of public education, so let your Legislators know that supporting public education, and supporting LGBTQ students is important to you. Everyone’s voice matters.


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