Whether you are a parent, teacher and/or taxpayer, polls show you are probably not happy with our public school system. As with any institution, leadership is of greatest importance. The top education official in Arizona is our State Superintendent of Public Instruction, a job currently held by Tom Horne. Arizona is one of only 12 states where this position is filled by an at-large election. In the rest of the country, these officials are appointed by the governor, or in some states, such as Massachusetts, the State Board of Education.
I mention Massachusetts because they are perennially ranked at the top of all K-12 systems in the USA. Shortly before I retired, I heard Dr. Mitchel Chester, who was then the top educational official in Massachusetts, speak at a public forum in Flagstaff. It was sponsored by a group of business and education partners who were seeking to improve schools in the region and wanted to hear from someone who excelled in that pursuit. At that time, had Massachusetts been a standalone country, it would have ranked fifth in the world in K-12 educational achievement.
I was surprised to learn that Dr. Chester had served through both Republican and Democratic administrations. Dr. Chester, who held a doctorate from Harvard in educational administration and had worked as a teacher and school administrator in various capacities, had been selected from a field of highly qualified applicants to lead the State’s public schools. Among his achievements, he advanced accountability measures for school districts and encouraged the use of charter schools to improve educational opportunities in Massachusetts. However, unlike the Wild West version we see in Arizona, charter schools in Massachusetts are carefully monitored.
During my nearly 40-year career in education in Arizona, we have elected our chief education officials from those with a diversity of backgrounds and experiences: business owners, attorneys, teachers, engineers, and even one with a degree in communication disorders. Although several demonstrated a sincere concern for public education and were quite effective, too often we have seen the position used as a steppingstone for higher office. Consider that when local school boards hire a superintendent, they strive to find someone who can inspire the confidence of the staff and community. Beyond academic preparedness, those who have demonstrated expertise within the profession are highly prized. No one is inclined to take direction from someone who lacks knowledge of their career field. What police officer would trust the judgment of a person without experience in law enforcement?
Continuity of leadership is also of great importance. Unlike Massachusetts, every four years, Arizona school districts are subject to the political whims of the newly elected State School Superintendent, not to mention new federal regulations. Changes in curriculum and testing requirements are among the most disruptive directives emanating from the Department of Education. Even when a set of relevant and meritorious academic standards are adopted, it takes time and a lot of hard work for school personnel to create curriculum and educational strategies to meet the new goals. Educators can readily tell when these changes are politically expedient rather than pedagogically sound. The prospect of relocating the goal post every four years has contributed to the mass exodus of competent school personnel from Arizona. Even Sisyphus learned to hate moving heavy rocks.
And then there is the factor of voter fatigue. E.J. Montini wrote, in a piece in the Phoenix Republic, written shortly after the election of current Superintendent Horne, “We spent so much time in recent months obsessing on the political candidates who might impact us grown-ups that we … completely forgot about…the children.”
He went on to report that during his tenure as Attorney General, Horne had been “investigated by the Arizona Secretary of State, the Arizona Solicitor General, the Citizens Clean Elections Commission, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office and the Yavapai County Attorney’s office.”
Even if Mr. Horne has learned from his previous stints as State School Superintendent and Attorney General, I remain skeptical he will be an inspiration for positive change. As for the forgotten children, they almost unanimously agree that longer recesses would improve our schools. I think they may be on to something.