A Conversation with Superintendent Kathy Hoffman

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Kathy Hoffman was elected Arizona's Superintendent of Public Instruction in November, 2018 and took office last January.  We recently asked her to share her perspective on education in Arizona.

What is your vision for education in Arizona?

In a state as diverse as Arizona, our educational communities – whether they are rural or urban- must be structured to realize equity for all students, teachers, and schools. 

Our schools have some of the most dedicated teachers and students. Over the past several decades, they have worked tirelessly to deliver amazing results with limited resources. Their work should be not only be recognized and celebrated, but we should start building our structure of educational equity on their foundation. 

To help our students, teacher, and schools continue their success, we need a reliable and enough funding system that eliminates the need for educational communities to pass bonds and overrides which significantly contribute to inequities in school funding. In my travels around the state, I’ve visited many schools where they could not pass a bond or override because the community did not have the financial privilege of increasing their local taxes. As one population increases its funding through increased local taxes, another neighboring town falls further and further behind. All our schools should receive the funds necessary to address the needs of their students, families, and teachers.  

Furthermore, all teachers whether they are special education, music, art, speech, counselors, nurses, instructional aides or janitors should be celebrated and recognized. Their hard work is the backbone of our public schools. While this begins by offering all school employees a living wage, it also starts with something as simple as recognizing the value of their work. An equitable system of education means that we are recognizing our teachers as leaders and demonstrate to younger generations that there is a future in education. 

At the Arizona Department of Education, we have already begun laying the groundwork to be that strong advocate for academic equity. In addition to addressing the need for more funding, we’ve elevated the voices of our educational communities by using our social media platforms and media interviews to highlight the achievements of our students, teachers, and schools. 

How will your experience as a teacher impact your leadership of the Arizona Department of Education?
Three months into office, I can say that being an educator has uniquely prepared me for the role of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Educators are communicators, collaborators, and team players. I’m lucky to have assembled and inherited a great team of people here at the Department of Education.

Having a team-oriented mindset is particularly helpful when we’re working with and bringing all sorts of stakeholders to the table. We want everyone who works with us to know that we’re on the same team. At the end of the day, we are just here to do what’s best for students and teachers.

What are the top issues you will be addressing in your first year as Superintendent?

We’ve already seen success around two of our initial policy priorities, which were (1) reducing the mandatory four-hour block for English Language Learning students, which has contributed to our state’s exceptionally low graduation rates for ELL students, and (2) repealing a 1991 law that discriminated against LGBTQ students in HIV/AIDS curriculum. Before the legislative session is over, we’d also like to see a repeal of the state’s “English Only” law sent back to the voters to give them a say in how our multilingual students learn.

Aside from policy, we are working to ensure that the Department of Education once again becomes an Agency of Service. We’ve created an ESA Taskforce, made up of key stakeholders including parents, the Treasurer’s Office, and the Governor’s office, who are working to improve the management of the program. Additionally, we’ve created multiple committees that are collaborating on issues like equity and cultural inclusion.

And, of course, we will continue to push for the development of a sustainable, long-term revenue source for our schools. Our public education system simply cannot wait on a serious funding model, and we’re ready to get to work.

Why do we need a more equitable education system in which every student receives a high-quality education?

Despite the hard work of our teachers, students and schools, there are clear differences in equity between districts and communities. In Arizona, this is mostly due to an outdated funding system and an overreliance on bonds and overrides to sustain public districts. Bonds and overrides require voter approval and tend to be more successful in affluent communities. This creates a system where two neighboring districts can have vastly different budgets. Additionally, relying on bonds and overrides to fund our schools disproportionately affect our rural communities who are far less likely to pass a bond or override. 

Performance based funding exacerbates inequalities, as well. When schools receive different amounts of funding based on student test scores, it can create vast disparities within districts – not to mention toxic climates.  It’s up to us to reform the system to make both schools and districts equitable for all.

How will the Arizona Department of Education engage with the community to create partnerships that will enhance student success?

Since taking office, we have hit the ground running to build up our partnerships across Arizona. Not only are we strengthening existing relationships, we are also establishing new relationships with community organizations to tap into the potential each community has to bring about positive change for public education. From supporting a Rural Schools Network in partnership with ASU, to inviting community leaders and educators to share their perspectives on our African American and Latinx Advisory Councils, we know the success of our schools will take input and support from the entire community.