Tom Horne, the Republican and Jewish candidate for Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction, repeatedly said he wanted to talk about test scores in his debate with Kathy Hoffman, the Democratic candidate and current superintendent.
In his opening statement for Wednesday night’s Citizens Clean Elections Commission-sponsored debate, which Richard Ruelas, reporter at The Arizona Republic and co-moderator, described as more of a give-and-take exchange of ideas than a formal debate, Horne, who held the superintendent office from 2003 to 2011, asserted that when he left, Arizona’s students scored 60% in math proficiency and 70% for reading and writing.
He said under Hoffman’s leadership proficiency scores have dropped to 42% and 42%, respectively. It was a point he returned to several times during the 30-minute debate.
Moderator Tom Simons of Arizona PBS asked Hoffman for her take on recent test scores, which were up slightly, but still saw most students failing reading and math.
Hoffman acknowledged, “we have our work cut out for us,” especially after COVID-19 and big cuts to education. She said the state’s schools have made some gains compared to the rest of the nation and “are moving in the right direction through the hard work of teachers and students.”
Rebutting Horne, Hoffman told Jewish News via email, “The biggest takeaway from the debate was my opponent’s willingness to lie and misrepresent the facts regarding test scores. Comparing test scores from Tom Horne’s administration to mine is like comparing apples to oranges.” She asserted that the testing during Horne’s tenure was much less rigorous than today’s standard.
When the debate turned to critical race theory (CRT), something Horne has made opposing a lynchpin of his campaign, he said it would hurt students because it places primacy on one’s race.
He explained that it’s the opposite of the American ideal of seeing people as individuals, “brothers and sisters under the skin,” who should be judged without consideration of race.
He also contended that CRT is being taught “all over the state.” As evidence, he pointed to a list of 200 Arizona teachers who signed onto a National Education Association statement agreeing to defy any state ban on CRT.
“They wouldn’t be doing that if they weren’t already teaching it, and they come from our 25 largest school districts, which means it’s being taught in every one of them, and they’re teaching kids that race is the most important thing about them.”
He also alluded to the Tucson school district’s Mexican American Studies program and a 2010 state ban on ethnic studies that he wrote and fully supported. Hoffman was quick to point out that a federal judge had struck down the ban in 2017 because it was racially and politically motivated.
She said Horne’s attack on CRT was also racially and politically motivated and that it’s not an important issue facing the state’s schools.
Horne’s campaign signs in Greater Phoenix highlight his attacks against CRT. He told Jewish News it was simply easier to fit that message on a sign than information about test scores. However, fighting CRT also receives top billing in his plan listed on his campaign website.
Horne clarified that while he doesn’t want students to focus on race, he does want them to learn accurate history.
“I’m all for teaching the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow and what happened in Oklahoma,” he said during the debate.
Horne told Jewish News that he believes racism is a problem and that it should be dealt with by introducing prejudice-reduction programs as he did when he was superintendent, instead of CRT, which “stereotypes people by race. That’s my definition of racism.”
He said during his time as superintendent, he used some of the Anti-Defamation League’s prejudice-reduction programs, which “teach kids to see each other as individuals and not pay attention to race or sexual orientation.”
The two candidates also sparred over what would make public schools safe, the efficacy of the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, a voucher program and how best to support the state’s teachers.
Horne talked about his past administration’s support for teachers, especially in terms of classroom discipline. He said teachers are leaving due to lack of administration support for their discipline decisions and he supports an orderly classroom.
He said that in his 24 years serving on Paradise Valley Unified School District’s board, “we didn’t reverse a teacher one time and were known as the toughest district around.”
He told Jewish News, under Hoffman, “kids can even swear at a teacher and the administration won’t do anything about it because it might hurt the kids’ feelings.”
Hoffman said she has created a teacher pipeline and invested in teacher mentoring during her time in office.
Two heated moments occurred when Horne talked about the addition of Q Chat Space, a resource for LGBTQ students, to the Department of Education’s website.
Horne consistently referred to it as “Queer chat” and called it an opening for students to give detailed information online about their sexual lives and thoughts to anonymous “Q chatters,” who are not licensed professionals.
“We don’t know how many of them might be predators,” he asserted.
Hoffman was quick to defend the program, saying it is a resource recommended by the Center for Disease Control and Mental Health America, a national nonprofit. She said her campaign is not focused on culture war issues, like attacks on the LGBTQ community.
Ruelas directly asked Horne about a recent campaign controversy: “Why would you have someone like David Stringer involved with your campaign?” He was referring to former state Rep. David Stringer, who was at one time charged with child sex crimes.
Horne said that Stringer was not a part of his campaign and had simply given a donation. He clarified that he had refunded his in-kind campaign donation, which involved putting campaign signs up.
Hoffman said his relationship with Stringer represented “a lack of judgment.”
Horne told Jewish News that he felt he did well on the debate stage.
“I got a lot of calls from people who said I did great,” he said. “I felt the same way because I was talking about what we need to do to get the test scores up and she was talking about irrelevant things.”
Horne is the only Jewish person ever elected to statewide executive office in Arizona and is a member of Temple Solel. JN
To view the debate, visit azpbs.org/horizon/2022/09/superintendent-of-public-instruction-debate-3/.