Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne is displayed on a videoboard as he speaks at a public swearing in ceremony on Jan. 5, 2023. Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror
Republican Tom Horne says he intends to work across the aisle to improve education in Arizona, but his views on discipline, social emotional learning and racial issues in schools are so far to the right that finding a middle ground with Democratic lawmakers and Gov. Katie Hobbs will prove challenging, if not impossible.
With a Republican-controlled legislature, and a Democratic governor, it’s unclear what he’ll be able to accomplish.
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Horne, 77, beat incumbent Democrat Kathy Hoffman in the midterm to reprise his role as superintendent of public instruction, a seat he previously held from 2003 to 2011.
His No. 1 focus in his return to the position, Horne said during Hobbs’ inaugural ceremony last week, was to return the Arizona Department of Education to a focus on academics and to increase test scores.
During a State of Education address to the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday, Horne shared his department’s new mission statement: “The Department of Education is a service organization dedicated to raising academic results and empowering parents.”
High-stakes testing and school take-overs
As part of that mission, Horne wants to reimplement a standardized test that all students in the state must pass before they can graduate high school. Passing the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards test, or AIMS, was a graduation requirement until 2015, when the legislature passed a bill lifting the requirement.
The bill to nix the requirement was backed by Republicans, who argued that administering the test needlessly wasted money and didn’t result in better education for students. On Wednesday Horne said the test was a way to hold students accountable.
During a recent meeting with Hobbs, Horne said that the governor didn’t express opposition to the idea of reinstating the test. A Hobbs representative told the Arizona Mirror that the governor or her spokespeople couldn’t answer questions about Horne’s plans before this story was published.
In another effort to boost academic performance, Horne said his administration was busy creating teams aimed at working with failing schools to help them improve. He added that, if failing schools don’t improve, the state should have the option of taking them over, something that almost happened to a handful of Arizona schools in 2008, during Horne’s previous term as superintendent.
Legislation considered last year would have allowed charter schools to take over failing district schools, though the measure ultimately failed to become law.
Beth Lewis, director of Save Our Schools Arizona, said that bringing in outsiders who are not from the community to take over schools like the ones threatened in 2008 was not a good idea. Those schools had large numbers of students living in poverty, and some were on tribal lands.
“It’s a bad look and bad practice,” Lewis said. “There’s no way that Governor Hobbs will let that happen.”
Horne also told lawmakers he wants to get rid of bilingual education for English language learners, something he worked on during his previous stint as superintendent. He prefers a switch to English immersion, which he said significantly improved English proficiency for students in the program.
The superintendent touted his administration’s efforts to deal with a backlog of parents who had applied for the state’s new, expanded school voucher program. He said that 171,000 parents had applied for the program and were waiting for approval when he took office, with some who had been waiting for months.
On his first day in office, Horne said his team approved 25,000 of those applications, worth $22 million in payments toward private schools and other non-public educational institutions.
Lewis, who led a campaign against the voucher expansion, said she found it worrisome that the Department of Education approved so many applications in one day, saying it’s unclear how that could be done while vetting the applications and private educational institutions set to receive the voucher funding.
“How could they approve that many in one day?” Lewis said in an interview with the Mirror. “It’s wild to me.”
Horne raised some eyebrows during his Jan. 5 speech at the public inauguration ceremony when he promised a “return to traditional discipline.” During an interview with the Arizona Mirror, Horne clarified that he does not believe in corporal punishment, but was referring instead to suspensions and expulsions.
“When a kid gets suspended or expelled, believe me, it gets the parents’ attention, and I know that from 24 years of experience,” Horne said.
Black and Native students in Arizona are already suspended at higher rates than their peers.
But Horne said he’s heard from teachers who are getting little to no support from their administrators in dealing with students who get out of hand, saying that administrators tell teachers to help students use their social emotional learning skills or to participate in restorative justice programs. Horne doesn’t believe either of those strategies work.
“You can learn in a classroom where kids behave,” Horne said. “If you let them get away with anything, it degenerates into anarchy. Kids want structure, but they’ll test the teacher, and if the teacher’s not being supported with discipline, they become helpless and the kids get out of hand.”
After listening to Horne’s speech to the Senate committee, Lewis said that he was “out of touch” with what’s going on in Arizona schools today.
“His plans are authoritarian and discipline focused, punitive in nature, and are not what kids need to help them thrive,” she said.
Horne told the Senate committee that, especially after the devastating shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, last year that left 19 students and two teachers dead, he wants to see a police officer or armed guard in every Arizona school.
In addition to upping the stakes when it comes to punishments, Horne also wants to get rid of social emotional learning — at least in its current form — and to nix what he says is critical race theory being taught in Arizona schools.
“Social emotional learning has been a front for critical race theory,” Horne told the Mirror.
Critical race theory is a concept created by legal scholars positing that racism is embedded in the structures of society, and is not simply the result of individual bias. But CRT has turned into a catchall term that critics use to describe any sort of teaching about race.
There is no evidence that the high-level academic concept is being taught in Arizona schools.
Republicans in the state legislature tried and failed last year to pass a bill banning CRT in Arizona classrooms. In 2021, a similar law was passed as part of the budget, but the Arizona Supreme Court ruled it and many other provisions were unconstitutionally shoehorned into the annual spending plan.
As evidence that CRT is being taught in Arizona classrooms, Horne sent the Mirror screenshots from a lesson in an English class at an Arizona high school that asked white students to consider their privilege, providing the example that they have the option of ignoring racism if they choose to.
“We need to teach kids that we’re all individuals,” Horne said. “We’re all brothers and sisters and we need to treat each other as individuals and that race is completely irrelevant.”
When asked if he had considered that race wasn’t irrelevant to the lived experiences of Black and Hispanic students, Horne said, “Race is irrelevant in the way we judge other people. People have different experiences, but I don’t believe that this is an oppressive society or a racist society. I’m very much against that kind of curriculum that teaches kids that they’re victims.”
He added that he’s been told that students are being asked to classify themselves as either the oppressors or the oppressed and that white students are “supposed to feel guilty 24 hours a day. And the kids who are minorities are supposed to think they can’t really achieve anything because the system is against them.”
While Horne said he doesn’t believe in social emotional learning as it was taught during the Hoffman administration, he did say he wants students to be “taught to be kind to one another.”
He plans to substitute social emotional learning with a program called Character Counts, used in schools when he previously had the superintendent job. Character Counts includes six pillars of character: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, citizenship and caring.
“We try to do that in a way that doesn’t detract from academics,” Horne said, by building the lessons into the existing academic structure.
Lewis said she found it “devastating” that Horne failed to mention mental health during his remarks to the Senate committee, noting that families are struggling to pay for food and housing, making life extra difficult for some students.
“Test scores won’t improve if kids aren’t well fed, well taken care of and not traumatized,” she said.
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