The debate between two candidates who want to lead Arizona’s schools is largely focused on how best to test student achievement. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, a Republican, and his Democratic challenger, Jason Williams, debated Sunday night at the Barton Barr Central Library in Phoenix.
Williams, who has been working with the state’s Teach For America office for five years, said he wants to acknowledge the problems in public schools, then “roll up our sleeves and get to work fixing them.”
Horne attempted to frame the race with one point of contention: Requiring high school seniors to pass Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards test to graduate.
“If a student can’t pass a reasonable test, should that student graduate high school?” Horne said. “I say no. Jason says yes.”
Horne said the graduation test makes sure children take school seriously.
“In the United States, students can get away with (blowing off school). In India or China, they can’t do that,” he said. “It’s part of the culture that allows kids to blow off school. Now, we’re turning that around.”
The issue of requiring high school students to pass the AIMS test to graduate is being hashed out in a court battle between the state and the William E. Morris Institute for Justice.
The institute — representing students who are poor, learning English and ethnic minorities — wants the Arizona Department of Education to spend more money to fully educate all of the state’s students and ensure they have a chance to pass the required AIMS test.
Williams disagrees with requiring AIMS for graduation, but he focused on other issues at the debate, such as making sure children are reading at grade level by second grade and recruiting highquality teachers for poorer schools.
Williams suggested paying extra money to teachers who work in high-poverty schools or to those serving many students who aren’t fluent in English.
But Horne disagreed, saying it would lower morale among all teachers. He also said it would be nearly impossible to define who those teachers are, arguing that every school district has children who aren’t fluent in English.
“Our English-language learners are not ghettoized. They are mainstreamed with other kids,” Horne said.
And, latching onto an issue that has created a rift between Horne and the federal government, Williams called for honesty in reporting test scores, saying Horne has manipulated data to make student achievement appear to be on the rise.
Horne is accused of excluding the test scores of certain students without an official waiver from federal officials.
“As the only candidate who walked in the shoes of our teachers, I believe in being transparent and honest with how we really are, not spending time manipulating data and test to make it appear differently,” he said.
After several weeks of debates, the two candidates are beginning to trade jabs.
Horne criticized William’s lack of experience, saying the 29-year-old’s résumé couldn’t come close to his, which includes 28 years of work on education issues.
He also noted that Williams was never a fully certified teacher and studied political science, not education, in college.
Before moving to Arizona, Williams taught sixth-graders at an inner-city school in Oakland, Calif., as part of Teach For America, a national teachers’ corps program in which recent college grads dedicate two years to teaching students in urban and rural schools.