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Schools superintendent brings youth, hope and optimism to role

Arizona’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman.

A newcomer to politics, Kathy Hoffman took some voters by surprise when she won her bid to become Arizona’s Superintendent of Public Instruction and took office in January. A former speech therapist in the Vail and Peoria school districts, Hoffman is the youngest elected schools superintendent in state history at 33 (32 when she won), and the youngest of her peers across the country.

Hoffman oversees Arizona’s public school system and directs the state Department of Education’s 565 employees at offices in Phoenix, Tucson and Flagstaff. She says she’s energized by her new role.

“It’s part of my personality that I have a lot of hope and optimism,” Hoffman says from a 16th-floor Education Department office at a midtown Phoenix high-rise. (In person, Hoffman’s youth is less apparent than her height: she’s just over 6 feet tall and often towers over colleagues at events.) “I think part of that is being young and just seeing there’s so much opportunity, and there’s still so much we can do to change the future and influence the direction we go.”

From day one, Hoffman affirmed she’ll have her own style. She took her oath of office on a children’s book — “Too Many Moose!” by Lisa Bakos — explaining it was beloved by her students and taught important communication skills. She’s also listening to diverse groups, including the March For Our Lives AZ kids, and trying to bring many stakeholders together to resolve the challenges still facing Arizona’s schools.

Justin and Kathy Hoffman.

Hoffman grew up in Portland, Oregon. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Japanese Studies at the University of Oregon (she’s fluent in Spanish and Japanese) and then moved to Tucson. Hoffman taught preschool there for two years and discovered the two loves of her life: speech pathology and her husband, Justin. (In his third year of medical school at Midwestern University, he plans to be a pediatric neurologist.) Hoffman went on to earn a master’s degree in speech pathology from the University of Arizona and worked as a speech pathologist in Arizona classrooms for six years.

Hoffman’s husband was one of the few who wasn’t surprised when she decided to run for office — a decision she came to after hearing U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speak. “It should have been a shock,” Hoffman recalls of his reaction. “I was not involved politically. I’d never run for anything before, but for him, he says he knows me as being a leader.”

Hoffman is the first Democrat to hold the position since 1995, and the first person elected to the post since tens of thousands of Arizona teachers joined the Red for Ed movement and marched on the state Capitol last spring, demanding better pay and support for public schools after years of cuts to public education funding landed Arizona near the bottom in most comparisons with other states in areas including teacher pay and retention.

So far, Hoffman is sticking with priorities she identified on the campaign trail, including an audit of the Education Department that is just getting underway. “I want my administration to be responsible and transparent and using tax dollars in the most efficient way,” she says. While audit results are months away, she’s already learned the department uses “antiquated” systems to track complex school-funding inputs. She’s planning to request money for a new IT system, and says the Education Department is also partnering with ASU, using its technology to double-check funding formulas and outcomes.

As this issue was going to press, state officials were celebrating a bipartisan victory after the legislature repealed a 1991 state law nicknamed “no promo homo” that prohibited the “promotion of a homosexual lifestyle” in schools (specifically in sex ed classes, but it was being interpreted more broadly). Gov. Doug Ducey signed legislation to repeal the law. Hoffman called attention to the law in her first State of Education speech, noting it had discriminated against LGBTQ students and contributed to bullying. As the legislature worked, Hoffman tweeted: “I applaud my colleagues in the legislature for taking this important step toward building a better and more equal state. Today, and every day, we say: all are welcome in our schools.”

Hoffman says there’s lots of work to be done, including identifying “a broad sustainable source of school funding” going forward. Here’s what she shared about the challenges and opportunities ahead.

You’ve long said paid maternity and paternity leave for teachers should be a priority. Why? I’ve just talked to countless teachers who have had that be an issue for them, and to me it’s just common sense. I think it would help attract more teachers to the profession and also retain our current teachers who want to start families.

Are there advantages to youth in this role? I definitely think I have brought a unique perspective to these conversations. Maternity leave is a perfect example, because I have had countless conversations with people who would say they have been working on education policy for over 20 years, who are considered to be experts in the field for Arizona education policy, and I start talking to them about why we need maternity leave, and they’re just stunned: ‘Wait, what? We don’t have maternity leave?’ I think [knowing things like that,] that’s being a young woman, that’s being in the classroom.

Both Arizona and the country are grappling with dropping vaccination rates and outbreaks of once-eradicated diseases like measles. You were glad when a bill to make personal exemptions for vaccinations easier failed this year in the legislature. For a kid to do well, they need to be in school. I think we need to follow the advice of our medical providers and follow the research, which supports vaccinating our children. It’s a way everyone can be as healthy as possible and prevent these types of outbreaks. For me, it comes right back to an issue of attendance and school outcomes and academic performance, as well as the safety and well-being of the child.

Is a particular issue or this job as a whole going to be more challenging than you thought? Actually it’s been the opposite. There were so many people along the way [who] said, “Why would you want that job? It’s just an administrative job. The legislature and the governor have all the power.” It’s been a pleasant surprise that this job is what you make of it. I’m a relationship builder and I’m a problem solver and I’m very solution-focused and I’m very quick to realize there’s a place for analyzing the problems and looking at the data and research — we do a lot of that — but then there’s realizing there’s just as important a place for identifying the next steps and moving forward and taking action. I’m really good at pushing those things forward and figuring out who needs to be involved [and coalition building].

What about this job keeps you up at night? What keeps me up at night is that our teacher shortage is so severe. I feel like it’s going to take years, and there’s not one easy fix to it. It’s a multifaceted issue when it comes to teacher workload and burnout and [how] our young people view the teaching profession. In December, [a report came out that] over 900 teachers had quit, and it had been roughly the same the year before. Even with the [20 percent by 2020] raises! Even housing is an issue — the affordability of housing can be a barrier for teachers. … It’s a massive problem, and it’s going to take time to address it. That’s a real challenge for us.

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Kara G. Morrison
Kara G. Morrison
Kara G. Morrison is the editor of Raising Arizona Kids and the mother of Sofia (8).

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