Candidates for top Arizona K-12 schools post spar in debate

The candidates seeking Arizona’s top K-12 education post sparred in a debate over critical race theory, services for LGBTQ youth and whether students are safe and learning as they should.

The at-times contentious debate featuring Republican Tom Horne and current Superintendent of Public Education Kathy Hoffman, a Democrat seeking a second four-year term, also featured exchanges over school shutdowns prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Horne said schools were shut down for far too long at Hoffman’s urging, leading to learning loss for children, job issues for their parents and sagging test scores.

MORE: Arizona teacher shortage remains 'dire' as students head back to school

Horne pointed to the dispute between Republican Gov. Doug Ducey and Hoffman six months into the pandemic, when he wanted metrics used to trigger schools closures changed. Hoffman wanted to stick with previous guidelines, which were tougher. The pair had generally been on the same page when the pandemic first hit Arizona in March 2020.

"That was not good for students, its was certainly not good for their parents, some of whom had to give up their jobs," Horne said.

Hoffman defended her response, saying that in hindsight she may have made slightly different decision, but not substantially so. She said she never imagined when she was elected in 2018 that she would be making condolence calls to co-workers of teachers who had died of COVID.

MORE: Students, staff get support from Arizona's top educator to begin heading back into classrooms

"And so of course, my focus, along with Governor Ducey, was how can we ensure that we’re doing everything possible to keep our kids alive and safe," Hoffman said. "And making sure that our schools are a healthy learning environment for everyone who was working in that environment."

Horne said a lot of private and charter schools remained open, with no major issues. And he said "kids are resistant to COVID as opposed to older people,"

Moderator Ted Simons of Arizona PBS, which aired Wednesday night’s Citizens Clean Elections Commission-sponsored debate, noted that infected children could take the virus home and infect their parents and grandparents.

Hoffman noted that more than 30,000 Arizonans have died from the virus and said she was "really proud of our work" helping schools adapt to remote learning and making sure students had access to internet services and computers.

Hoffman was a teacher and speech therapist before running for office, the first to run the Department of Education in 20 years. The department oversees school funding distributions, ensures state and federal education laws and policies are followed and oversees statewide testing.

Horne served eight years as schools chief before being elected attorney general in 2010, a post he lost in the 2014 GOP primary after being caught using his office staff to run his reelection campaign.

That issue did not come up in the debate, but his push during his superintendent years for a ban on a Mexican-American studies program taught in Tucson schools led to testy exchanges. A federal judge found that law was enacted for racist intentions by Republicans who were politically motivated and permanently blocked it after a seven-year court battle.

Horne himself brought up the issue, after he was asked about his views on "critical race theory" a hot-button topic for Republicans even though it is not taught in K-12 schools.

"Critical race theory is the opposite of what I believe, and what I believe is the American ideal," Horne said. "And that is that we’re all individuals. We’re all brothers and sister under the skin, we’re all entitled to be judged as individuals, and race is irrelevant.

"In critical race theory. They teach kids that race is primary," Horne said. "And they create a tension between groups."

MORE: Arizona House votes to ban critical race theory in schools

Hoffman slammed Horne for the response, saying it was part of political "culture wars" pushed by Republicans.

"I think this is a classic from Mr. Horne just as it was an issue back .. when he advocated for the ban in Tucson," she said. "This is an attack on our public school system.

"That’s exactly what I’m hearing again here today from Mr. Horne, is something that’s racially and politically motivated that’s meant to create distrust between families in our public schools," she said.

The two also sparred over a link on the superintendent’s website that directs LGBTQ students to a chat recommended by the CDC and national mental health groups.

Horne called "Q-chat" an unmoderated site that bypasses parents that features unlicensed counselors. He said students’ personal data might be leaked to predators.

"This is, I think, outrageous to have the parents not playing a role there," Horne said. "They don’t know that the kids are engaging in this Q-chat with these adults.

Hoffman said Horne was just seeking political points and said that the site is for youth that "far too often are facing hate in the world."

"This is a resource, again, recommended by the CDC that is meant to support our students," she said. "These attacks are political and baseless."