Supt. Hoffman Delivers State of Education Speech to House Representatives

Published: February 4th, 2019

Please find the Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman’s State of Education Speech to the House Representatives on February 4, 2019 below:

Chairwoman Udall, members of the committee, thank you for having me here today.

Let’s start with something we can all agree on: every day, Arizona’s amazing, dedicated teachers guide their students toward incredible achievements.

As an educator and speech therapist, I know firsthand that our schools are tasked with more than teaching our children to read, write, and take tests. We are preparing them for success in school, at home, in their communities, and in their future careers.

As I have traveled the state, I’ve seen that our teachers and support staff are eager to go above and beyond for their students because they know, like I do, that Arizona’s future starts in our schools. Across the state — in urban and rural districts alike — I have met so many teachers dedicated to serving their students despite the obstacles they face.

One of my favorite school visits was to Mayer High School, just outside of Prescott, where I first learned about Future Farmers of America, or FFA. For those who are unfamiliar, FFA is a student organization that builds leadership skills as students learn about agriculture and animal life, all the way from birth to BBQ — their words, not mine. Many of the FFA students help their families make ends meet by working part-time jobs and raising animals to auction at fairs.

Mayer’s FFA chapter utilizes the school’s 85-acre Land Laboratory, which includes a greenhouse, aquaculture center, metal shop, and a barn with cattle, goats, and pigs. Last year, thirteen of the chapter’s students received Industry Welding Certificates, and their chapter president received a scholarship to participate in a leadership conference in Washington, D.C. This past January, the students were awarded a $1,200 grant to clean up Big Bug Creek following the fires and floods that devastated their community in 2017.

Mayer High School boasts exceptional programs like these — but it faces its own set of unique challenges. The FFA teacher advisor, Mr. Dinges, is the school’s lone agriculture teacher and, now in his fourth year, is one of the longest-tenured teachers at the school. After burning through five science teachers in four years, Mayer has NO science teacher, leaving students to take all of their science coursework through Computer Based Instruction.

The school’s high teacher turnover rate is in part due to a lack of affordable housing in the surrounding area. Mr. Dinges told me that he and his family work around this issue by living in an RV near school property.

Mr. Dinges is just one example of countless committed teachers across the state who are forced to find ways to overcome obstacles in their jobs. That list of obstacles is not short, and it should not fall on our educators to find solutions alone. I look forward to leading the Department of Education, and partnering with you — my colleagues in the Legislature — to work collaboratively to find solutions. But we must begin with a common language and acknowledgment of the challenges that our students and educators face.

For one, addressing the social-emotional well-being of our students is now a critical job function for many folks working in our schools. The number of children dealing with trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences — including parental substance abuse associated with the opioid epidemic — has risen dramatically over the last few decades. At the same time, educators have seen an increase in behavioral challenges.

What’s more, in an era of ballooning classroom sizes, teachers feel unequipped to manage a class of 30 children while also finding the time to provide individualized attention to their students, especially those that are facing depression, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts. That’s why I am fully supportive of any plan to increase the presence of counselors, social workers, and school psychologists in our schools.

Supporting students’ emotional wellbeing also means creating an inclusive environment that supports children from all backgrounds. After putting tens of thousands of miles on my car, and having to buy a second car, I know Arizona is diverse not just in terms of landscape, but also in its culture, language, heritage, and families.

Our students come from families of all sorts, be it two parents, a single parent, grandparents, two moms or two dads. We also have students who are a part of the foster system and nontraditional homes. We should seek to understand and value these experiences, and build policies that reflect them.

We must also consider students who are more likely to experience bullying and harassment — including students in the LGBTQ community. A simple step we can take to help reduce discrimination and bullying for these students is to repeal the “no promo homo” law — legislation that only contributes to an unsafe school environment. This policy is not just outdated, it has always been harmful and wrong.

Building a true inclusive environment in our schools also means valuing multilingualism and celebrating diversity.

Many businesses across the state are desperate for bilingual employees — but Arizona suffers from high drop-out rates of English-learning students. With only 18 percent of these students graduating high school, Arizona has the worst ELL graduation rate in the country.

That’s why I am thrilled to support Representative Udall and Senator Boyer’s bills to reduce the restrictions of the 4-hour ELL block. This will allow students to spend more time immersed in general education coursework with their native English-speaking peers — something research shows actually improves ELL students’ success.

But it is the success of all students that is the driving force behind my work as Superintendent of Public Instruction. I take it seriously because I know the stakes are high. So, when I’m asked about my thoughts on issues like charter school reform, my response is that I hold myself accountable for every Arizona child’s success — whether they attend a district or a charter school.

That is why I am strongly committed to holding ALL schools to the same level of accountability – in transparency, in governance, and in procurement. The main purpose of charter schools should be to educate our children — not to profit at the expense of our communities. Any charter expenditure must be in the best interest of schools and the students they serve.

I appreciate the Governor’s recommendation to increase staff at the Charter School Board. I think we can all agree there is an intense need for greater transparency and communication, which makes this one of the clearest places to get to work. I look forward to a spirited debate on charter school reform, and I hope bills proposed from both sides of the aisle get hearings, so we can forge bipartisan solutions that deliver fairness and equity for our students.

It is impossible to discuss student success, however, without noting that the key to this success means ensuring every classroom is led by a highly qualified teacher. Right now, Arizona’s teacher shortage is nothing short of a crisis.

Schools only function with the hard work of our teachers. But year after year, we have seen a devastating number of teachers leave the profession or move out of state. What’s more, in the next two years, twenty five percent of Arizona’s educators will be eligible to retire.

This teacher shortage has a real impact on our students’ and our state’s future. Let’s consider, for example, that the national average of students enrolled in high school physics is 40 percent. In Arizona, that average is 20 percent. This is due in part to the fact that we have only 150 physics teachers across our entire state. How can we expect our students to become engineers, scientists, or doctors when we are not providing them access to physics, calculus, or other high-level STEM coursework?

Let’s be clear: student success is not possible without highly-qualified teachers in the classroom. We absolutely must advance teacher recruitment and retention which means competitive pay and benefits across the board.

In my conversations with teachers, a common concern is that their pay has been stagnant or even reduced by the rising cost of healthcare. One teacher recently shared that his pay has decreased every year for the past several years due to the increasing cost of healthcare and retirement benefits. The only way for him to find a pay raise would be to switch districts, which would not be in our students’ best interest. Just like any career, teachers deserve to know that their commitment to the field will result in fair pay increases that correlate with their years of experience.

To support the upcoming generation of young teachers and be competitive with the private sector, we must also look at improving benefits – like paid maternity and paternity leave, or housing subsidies – that will draw more young people to the profession and retain our veteran teachers as they build their careers and their families in our state.

And we cannot limit these improvements to just some teachers. In every classroom, it takes a wide range of professionals to make the school day run smoothly. Governor Ducey’s 20by2020 plan was a good start towards giving our teachers raises — but the plan limits the definition of “teacher” to only those that have homeroom classes. It excludes our art, music, and special education teachers, as well as support and classified staff, like counselors, speech therapists, paraprofessionals, and more. Raises for all of the talented, passionate employees who teach our kids can only be done with a dedicated, sustainable funding source — something that does not need to be referred to the ballot. You, as legislators, can do this. I’m encouraged that the conversation so far this session has focused on HOW we will fund education, and not IF we will.

We must provide these necessary supports to allow educators to focus on their primary purpose: teaching future generations. It is a matter of respect.

I’m proud to say that the we have already started to address many of these pressing issues in just my first few weeks in office. But we must do it right and collaboratively, which is why my first priority is improving communication and transparency between the Department of Education, the public, and this legislative body.

To increase our transparency, we have begun the process of conducting a top-to-bottom audit of the Department to discover what works and what doesn’t work. This audit is not meant to be punitive — it is a tool for holding me accountable to my constituents. The results of this audit will provide us a full picture of departmental operations and finances, and serve as the basis for future decisions regarding the funds we have been entrusted. As we make those decisions, we ask for your support and confidence in our ability to steward these funds effectively and for their intended purpose.

We will also be working with expert partners to conduct an internal capacity review, so that we can organize ourselves to ensure that our department is once again an agency of service.

And we also will be working with you. Those of you on this committee are important advocates for education in Arizona, and I look forward to partnering with you — and offering the help of my team at the Department of Education — as we work to build success and solutions in the coming months.

Already, many of you have extended to me a great courtesy: finding the time to talk. Together, we’ve begun to exchange ideas and explore how we can meet the standard of educational excellence we know we can achieve. We are so much more powerful when we collaborate.

To those of you who have already joined me for a conversation, I say, “thank you.” To those of you I’ve not yet met with, I say: “Let’s make it happen!”

This is important, because ‘collaboration’ and ‘partnership’ have not always been the first words to characterize the relationship between the Department of Education and the Legislature. We can change that. I intend to be an active partner with you, your colleagues in the Senate, and the Governor to meet our shared goals together.

Let’s elevate the voices of educators and students by celebrating their incredible achievements. Let’s make our schools attractive places to work by providing teachers the supports they need to creatively and proactively meet the needs of their students.

Time and time again, we see that when educators are given the opportunity to lead, they can transform their classrooms and their communities.

If you don’t believe me, just ask the rural principal I met from Pinal County. He shared with me the “Cowboy Code of Conduct” his school instituted as a guiding set of principles to motivate students and improve their work ethic. In Pinal County, cowboys are role models, and his students were excited to learn the principles of cowboy ethics.

The rules of the code were simple: always finish what you start, take pride in your work, and know where to draw the line. But these lessons resonated more deeply with students because their educators were empowered to connect student-learning with everyday examples in their community.

This is what happens when we let educators lead because they are the true experts of education. Our policies will be most effective when we value and listen to educators, and when we work together to build solutions for our students, our teachers, and our schools.

There is a lot of work to do, and together, we will get this right.

Thank you.