Election showdown for Arizona schools

Election showdown for Arizona schools

(Ariz.) Public schools in Arizona have much at stake in tomorrow’s election, which includes the governor’s race, where teacher pay and education funding have emerged as key issues.

But voters will also be asked to choose a new state schools chief after the controversial incumbent failed to get out of the primary.

Finally, there is a proposition placed on the ballot largely by teachers that would repeal sweeping state legislation aimed at boosting charters and private schools.

“This is our shot,” Kelley Fisher, a kindergarten teacher in Glendale and a leader of the teacher protest, told Slate last week. “I don’t think it’s going to come around again for a very long time. We have to make it count.”

The election showdown over schools in Arizona began six months ago when teachers staged a statewide walkout and forced Gov. Doug Ducey and legislative leaders to adopt a 20 percent pay increase.

The action followed similar teacher protests over pay in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky. Although political muscle in a number of states is being flexed by teachers, the November mid-term ballot in Arizona is seemingly infused with school issues almost top to bottom.

The governor’s race, for instance, pits the GOP incumbent Ducey, against David Garcia, a college professor who is an expert in mining school performance data.

Garcia, who trails Ducey in recent polls, rose to prominence four years ago when he ran an unsuccessful campaign for State Superintendent of Schools. But aligned with the outburst of support for teachers brought on by the pay protest in May, the education scholar at Arizona State University has forced Ducey to make campaign promises for increasing school funding if reelected.

Looming in the shadows of the gubernatorial race is another statewide measure that teachers sought to put before voters this week—the Invest in Ed Act, which the state supreme court invalidated because of wording issues.

The initiative would have imposed tax hikes on the state’s highest earners, generating close to $700 million a year for schools.

In response, Ducey has committed generally to get “more money, over inflation, every year” to schools.

The race for state superintendent is also hotly contested. Republican candidate Frank Riggs, a former Congressman from a district in Northern California, faces Democrat Kathy Hoffman, a speech therapist working for two districts in Peoria.

Riggs, who moved from Sonoma County, California to Phoenix in 2001, founded an online charter school and explored a run for governor in 2005.

While the candidates have clear differences over education policy, perhaps the most compelling personality of the campaign is someone not on the ballot—Diane Douglas, the incumbent who failed to win passage out of the primary.

Douglas, who was elected in 2014 with a razor thin majority as a Tea Party favorite and vocal critic of the Common Core State Standards, faced a recall campaign almost immediately after taking office. During her term, she was also embroiled in public spats with the governor and his appointees to the state board of education, some of which resulted in lawsuits.

Although she lost the Republican primary in August by less than 3,500 votes, she attracted four challengers including Riggs, who won with just 21.8 percent support.

The decision between Riggs and Hoffman will be more about political philosophy than actual political power, since Arizona, like many states, gives most of the authority over school policy to the governor and the Legislature.

Finally, Arizona voters will also be deciding Proposition 305—a measure that would repeal legislation that expanded the state’s voucher program.

Last year, lawmakers with Ducey’s support pushed through legislation that offered state-supported K-12 scholarships to all 1.1 million students in the public schools by 2022.

The voucher program helped ignite teacher unrest earlier this year and is expected to help to drive Democratic turnout Tuesday.

One of the key issues surrounding Prop. 305 is its actual ballot wording, because a yes vote would maintain the new voucher program, while voting no would repeal it.

According to a poll conducted in early October, 51 percent of Democratic voters participating said they would vote yes on the measure—clear evidence of confusion.

“I think I would probably change that to no,” Dave Hess, a 55-year-old Democrat said in an interview with the Arizona Republic, after having the proposition fully explained.

“I was just going off of what the guy was reading to me,” he said. “If it's a voucher program I would vote no.”

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