Arizona’s top schools administrator, Diane Douglas, campaigned on repealing Common Core standards and took office in 2015.
She says her focus has been on developing Arizona standards for Arizona students, higher level math standards and effectively running the state education department.
The Star met with Douglas last week while she was in Tucson to participate in an education conference and host public forums. We asked her about some key education issues. Her responses were edited for clarity and length:
Q: Prop. 301, a statewide tax levy that boosts pay for teachers, is expiring in 2021. You had previously said you want to extend and expand it. What is your reason, and how will you justify a tax increase to the people who voted you in?
A: I don’t think everyone who voted me in is opposed to a tax increase. The people want their teachers paid better and I think they understand that the money has to come from some place. So my proposal is to increase it to a full cent from one-sixth of a cent. I’m no fan of a sales tax. In my opinion, it hurts the people we most want to help: our low-income families. This is a proposition and it goes to the voters. They either say yes or no. If it’s a reasonable request, I hope they will seriously consider it and take a look. I will work with the Legislature to make sure there is non-supplanting language that ensures the money goes to teachers.
Q: How would you secure more funding from the state government outside of seeking other options?
A: We definitely need some new funding sources if we want to compensate our teachers accordingly. People hear that our state budget is $9 billion and it seems like a lot of money, but most of it’s already spoken for to fund voter initiatives and state agencies. There’s not much new money. To get state aid, it’s challenging. We need to look at how to find new money. For example, other states have toll roads or own lots of land that generates revenue, not that I’m advocating for that. That’s just some of the things you could look at.
Q: How do you see the recent expansion of the Empowerment Scholarship Account, or school vouchers that give public funding for students to attend private schools, playing out for Arizona education?
A: I’m an advocate for school choice. I believe that God gives the children to parents and not government bureaucracy. Parents have to make the decisions about their children’s education. The political debate is for the Legislature. We at the education department are tasked with oversight of the money. There have been pushes to privatize that oversight. I’m vehemently opposed to that. It’s public money and the public has a right to know. We look at those voucher expense reports and make sure that the expenses are viable.
Q: What are your thoughts on the new law that creates alternative teaching credentials, which would allow those with no formal teacher training to become teachers, and its potential impacts on the teacher workforce in Arizona?
A: It’s no secret that I was not a fan of that piece of legislation. We had alternative pathways into the classrooms already. One of the problems is that for many years the prevailing philosophy was that if you knew how to teach, understood classroom management and pedagogy, you didn’t necessarily need to be an expert. Now we’re taking this swing where as long as you know your content, you can teach anyone. The truth is in the middle: you need to have a strong skill set and you have to have a passion, but you also have to be able to manage a classroom and develop a lesson plan. In the long run, I think it would hurt teacher retention and recruitment.
Q: In recent years, Arizona has been at or near the bottom of the list in terms of academic achievement levels. What is your plan to boost academic achievement across the state?
A: One of the things we want to do is to make AzMERIT a formative test rather than summative. The intent of that test should be to help students become more successful. It’s not about teacher, school or district evaluations. I’m not convinced that standardized testing is the most accurate measure of achievement. We should make that test more formative and make sure students are getting the help they need.
Q: What are your thoughts on the new mechanism for rating the state’s schools and districts?
A: I’m not a big fan of the A to F system either. It’s based primarily on a test that’s not been proven valid to measure a school or a district. They have made a split between growth and proficiency and added college and career readiness indicators, including career and technical education programming. But there needs to be more. I wanted extra funding to expand that system to give parents a much better overview. To some parents, it’s important that there is a full-time nurse. There are a whole lot of reasons. We want to continue working on the report cards.