School super candidates unite in opposition to Prop 305

Democrat Kathy Hoffman and Republican Frank Riggs square off Thursday in a televised debate with Ted Simons of KAET-TV hosting. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

Democrat Kathy Hoffman and Republican Frank Riggs square off Thursday in a televised debate with Ted Simons of KAET-TV hosting. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

PHOENIX -- The two contenders for state schools chief found one key area of agreement in a debate Thursday: Both oppose Proposition 305.

Democrat Kathy Hoffman, a former speech therapist with the Peoria Unified School District, said there is no reason for the plan approved last year by the Republican-controlled Legislature to make vouchers of taxpayers dollars available for all 1.1 million students to attend private or parochial schools, though it had an initial cap of 30,000.

“If we provide the programs and services the kids need in the public schools, then the parents don’t feel like they need to go try to find another program,’’ she said during the televised debate on KAET-TV.

Republican Frank Riggs, a former California congressman, said he has no problem with what are called “empowerment scholarship accounts.’’ In fact, he said there is an argument to be made for greater availability.

But not for all.

“Any expansion of ESAs ... should be means tested to give low-income families priority and parity,’’ Riggs said.

That latter point is important, he said, because the typical voucher is in the neighborhood of $5,000 a year. But tuition at most private schools is far more, effectively making vouchers useless except for families who can afford to make up the difference.

Riggs also has another problem with a provision in the 2017 law -- the one that voters will decide through Proposition 305 whether to ratify or reject -- which adds some testing and accountability provisions for students getting state money to attend these private schools.

“I’ve heard from a lot of parents who have chosen a private, sectarian education for their child, that they believe that could be the camel’s nose under the tent and actually lead to the government, the Arizona Department of Education, beginning to regulate private schools,’’ he said, including what religious values they can teach.

Hoffman said she’s willing to keep in place the existing vouchers which now are reserved for students with special needs. These range from learning and physical disabilities to attending public schools rated D or F. But any expansion, she said, even one aimed at students from low-income households, is unacceptable.

“I do not believe in taking taxpayer dollars and putting those towards private schools, Hoffman said, at least in part because some of these are run as religious institutions. “I believe in separation of church and state.’’

Both said there needs to be greater state oversight of charter schools. These technically are public schools which in most states are run as nonprofit operations. But in Arizona they can be not only privately owned but run for a profit.

A series of recent news stories has pointed up situations where charter school owners have pocketed the state dollars they get for students through things like no-bid contracts with their own companies and selling off building for a profit which originally were built with state dollars.

Hoffman called those reports “highly disturbing’’ but said she would not call for an end to for-profit charter schools.

Riggs, by contrast, not only wants charter schools limited to non-profit operations but proposes other reforms, including each school having an independent governing board of people with special training in not just education but also finances.

The pair both said they supported the teacher strike last spring -- but with a key difference.

Hoffman said the Red for Ed movement and the strike were necessary to get public attention after a decade with per-student funding failing to keep pace with inflation

But Riggs said he quickly soured on it, saying the “organic, true grass-roots movement’’ had been “co-opted by very, very partisan political individuals.’’

“I lost all support for them,’’ he said, citing the fact that the Arizona Education Association, a key part of the movement, endorsed Democrat David Garcia for governor.

Hoffman acknowledged the role of AEA in the movement but said Riggs was confusing it with Arizona Educators United, the original group that organized teachers and the walkout, with AEA coming on board later.

“It’s a distinction without a difference,’’ Riggs responded. And he said that Noah Karvelis, an AEU organizer, is “a self-proclaimed socialist,’’ referring to a speech Karvelis gave earlier this year to a conference on socialism. Karvelis said he went to the event to network with other educators.

Hoffman said it was Riggs who was playing partisan politics.

“People from all backgrounds were part of the Red for Ed movement,’’ she said. “Education is an issue that crosses party lines because our children do not know the difference between Democrat, Republican,’’ Hoffman continued, saying all they care about is what is happening in the classroom.

Hoffman also said she supported the Invest in Ed initiative which would have raised $690 million for education through an income tax hike on earnings of more than $250,000 a year. The measure was knocked off the ballot by the Arizona Supreme Court after the justices said petition signers were not informed that another provision would affect how income tax brackets are indexed for inflation and the percent of the tax hike on the wealthy was understated.

Riggs called the proposed tax increase “counterproductive,’’ saying it would have led to a decrease in job production and a resultant decrease in tax revenues.

On Twitter: @azcapmedia

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