As the recent teacher walkout focused national attention on education funding in Arizona, the race for the next Arizona superintendent of public instruction has been heating up as well. The position oversees the state of Arizona’s public school system and directs the state’s Department of Education.
David Schapira, a Tempe city councilman, will face off in the Democratic primary against Kathy Hoffman, a Peoria teacher.
Incumbent Republican Diana Douglas faces four primary challengers, including Tracy Livingston, a board member for the Maricopa Community College Governing Board; Frank Riggs, a former California congressman and one-time Arizona gubernatorial candidate; Jonathan Gelbart, the former director of charter school development for Basis Charter Schools; and Robert Branch.
While Douglas has threatened teachers with letters of censure for participating in the walkout, Schapira, a former math teacher and current high school administrator at the East Valley Institute of Technology, has marched in solidarity with protesting educators.
“I think the citizens of this state who are concerned about the future of Arizona deserve to have a professional educator in that job,” Schapira said.
Advocating for education is nothing new for Schapira, a third-generation Jewish Arizonan who had his bar mitzvah at Temple Chai. He first ran for public office in 2006, when he was elected to the Arizona House of Representatives at 26.
That was a contentious election, with four Republican candidates and three Democrats. The old 17th District consisted of Tempe and parts of south Scottsdale. Schapira got into the election late and with little name recognition.
“Everybody tried to talk me out of it,” Schapira recalled. “My own family members were like, ‘David, you are crazy. You’re too young. It’s too late in the election cycle. It’s a Republican district.”
Schapira had experience, though, as a campaign manager for Terry Goddard’s successful 2002 run for Arizona state attorney general. He also taught classes on Arizona government at Arizona State University. Also, Schapira had graduated from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and had served on the Hill, working for then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.
“I just didn’t buy into the discouragement and I knocked on 7,000 doors across the district,” Schapira said of that 2006 campaign. “I said a very simple message: ‘My name is David Schapira. I’m a teacher and I think the legislature needs the voice of an educator.’”
Schapira secured appointments to the education and appropriations committees, which allowed him to focus on the state’s school system.
While in the House, Schapira was the primary sponsor of HB 2206, the Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program, which offered graduates from Arizona’s state universities one year of student loan forgiveness for each year they taught math, science or special education at a public school in the state.
In 2008, Schapira was reelected. Two years later, state Sen. Meg Burton Cahill approached Schapira about running for her seat. Schapira took her up on the offer and was elected in an otherwise bleak year for Democrats.
“I think I only won that one by like 1,000 votes,” Schapira said. “There were only nine Democrats who won their elections that year for the state Senate. We had nine out of 30. That’s the smallest caucus of either party in state history. We called ourselves the one-pizza caucus.”
He was elected to Tempe Union High School District Governing Board at the same time. The youngest member of the state Senate at 30, Schapira secured the position of Senate Minority Leader.
“At the time, that made me the highest-ranking Democrat in state government,” Schapira said.
However, any joy from his personal victory was soon overshadowed by the tragic events of January 8, 2011, when U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot during a constituent meeting. Schapira had known Giffords for years, and also knew Gabe Zimmerman, her community outreach director and one of six people killed during the shooting. Schapira helped organized a vigil for victims at the state capitol featuring a number of local rabbis and other clergy.
“It was a tough time politically,” Schapira said. “It was a tough time economically, and when that happened in Tucson, it was an emotional time and difficult time.”
Schapira left the state legislature in 2013 and the school board in 2014, the same year he was elected to Tempe’s City Council. Schapira credits Alexis Tamaron, then U.S. Rep. Harry Mitchell’s chief of staff, with convincing him to run for council.
“I said, ‘My big issue is education and I just don’t know how much I can do on that issue at City Hall,’” Schapira said. “She said, ‘The great thing about city government is that it is what you make it.’ I took her words to heart.”
After being elected, Schapira immediately began working on ways the city could help fill the gap in access to preschool. The city partnered with the National Institute for Child Success, which gave an $85,000 research grant to collect data on child poverty rates, kindergarten readiness and preschool attendance in Tempe.
In June of 2017, Tempe Free Pre was launched. The program offered 250 3- and 4-year olds living in poverty free preschool. Current enrollment is 360.
“That is one of my proudest accomplishments,” Schapira said.
If elected as state superintendent, Schapira says he plans to use his experience as an educator and legislator to work to improve and advocate for education. “The failures of our education system are truly failures of the political system.” JN