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New Arizona Chief, a Former Teacher, Seeks to Mend Relationships, Pivot Agenda

For the last four years, Arizona's since-departed state schools chief, Republican Diane Douglas, was at odds with Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, and his appointed state board of education over who's in charge, who works for who and state standards.   

But Douglas lost her primary last year, and Democrat Kathy Hoffman, former special education teacher, was ultimately elected state chief.

In an interview with Education Week, Hoffman described her new priorities for the state education department, including altering the state's ESSA plan, pushing for more funding for schools, and rebuilding trust between the department and the state's political leadership.  

Hoffman was partly voted in as part of a wave of teacher activism across the state over school funding. In her State of the State speech last month, she complimented Ducey on his efforts to boost teacher pay by 20 percent by 2020, but urged him to think more holistically about school funding. 

"Let's be clear: Student success is not possible without highly qualified teachers in the classroom," she said during the speech. "We absolutely must advance teacher recruitment and retention, which means competitive pay and benefits across the board."

Because districts, rather than the state, control teacher pay amounts, some teachers were given as little as 2 percent raises last year, while other teachers were given 18 percent raises.  Hoffman said in an interview she's encouraged that Ducey included in his budget more funding for the board that oversees the state's expansive charter sector, which she said will lead to more accountability.  And she said she appreciates that Ducey included money for more school counselors. The state currently employs one counselor for every 900 students. 

But she said the state needs to spend more on special education and providing pay raises for support staff like school bus drivers and office secretaries. 

"I'm acutely aware of the diminished resources and the shortages," the former special education teacher said about the shortage of special education teachers. "There's also a retention problem because they're burning out and leaving the field."    

Hoffman said to rebuild trust between the governor, state legislators, and the state education department, she will conduct an audit of the department's spending habits in order to show that the department is spending its money effectively and efficiently. 

As part of that effort, Ducey also included in his budget money to update the software the department uses to figure out how to distribute state resources. The software was installed in the mid-'90s, Hoffman said.  

"We're managing, but we're worried it could fall apart at any moment," she said.  

Meanwhile, Hoffman said, the department is in the early stages of researching how teachers' health care costs have risen and looking at ways to amend the state's accountability plan. 

"We're actively in conversations right now discussing how can we maintain stability and assure that we have a reliable accountability system," she said. 

Hoffman said that her experience as a teacher has helped her explain some of the day-to-day realities for teachers in under-resourced schools. 

"I'm very tuned in to the personal experiences and conversations with colleagues with some of the challenges educators face that policy makers are unaware of," she said.   

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