It’s not the matchup everybody expected. Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne is being challenged by a 29-year-old nonprofit director who has campaigned by traveling the state in a big yellow school bus.
And Democrat Jason Williams is only 8 percentage points behind Republican Horne.
“It’s surprisingly close,” said Bruce Merrill, who directed the recent poll conducted by Arizona State University’s journalism school and KAET-TV (Channel 8). “The fact that it was as close as it was indicates that Horne isn’t in quite as strong of a position as you think he would be, being the incumbent.”
Williams shocked Democrats and Republicans alike when he beat former state lawmaker Slade Mead in the primary, taking every county except Maricopa, where he lost by a couple hundred votes.
“Williams wasn’t on anyone’s radar map,” said Mike Smith, a lobbyist for the Arizona School Administrators Association. “The day after the primary, everyone’s asking, who is Jason Williams? And where did he come from? I was absolutely flummoxed.”
Williams said he wasn’t surprised, though he does admit it’s been an uphill battle.
“Ever since Day One, we’ve been the underdog,” he said. His campaign Web site alludes to a matchup between David and Goliath.
Horne, who had good reason to follow the race closely, was shocked.
“I was as close to certain as you could be that Slade Mead was going to win that primary, and so was everyone else,” Horne said.
The night of the primary, the liberal blogosphere was buzzing, too, with Web site posts from incredulous Democrats who said almost everyone had underestimated Williams.
“We . . . didn’t bother to challenge (Williams) head-on because we didn’t take him seriously . . . Where we went wrong was when we just ignored Jason, and it cost us,” wrote Geoff Esposito, a Mead campaign coordinator, on the blog Wactivist.com. “Victory was taken for granted.”
Horne’s name recognition and larger campaign coffers will make it hard for Williams to beat Horne, Smith said. He doubts Williams will be able to pull a surprise punch two times in a row.
Using the state’s Clean Elections funding, Horne’s campaign has raised $132,000 — nearly triple that of Williams. Horne is spending the majority of that on television ads.
Williams has raised just $53,000 — with a large chunk going to pay consultants and for gas and a driver for his school bus, which he uses to run a grass-roots campaign around the state.
But with a career spent working for Teach for America, a nonprofit that places topnotch college graduates in poor public schools, Williams said pinching pennies comes naturally.
“We’ve been very creative in the past,” he said. “That’s the advantage to having been a teacher in low-income schools: You learn how to get creative with limited resources and still achieve your goals.”
Not surprising in this race is the No. 1 issue: AIMS. As in previous superintendent races, Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards remains the hot topic.
Horne said it’s the single most important issue in this year’s campaign, saying the high-stakes exam prevents teenagers from blowing off school.
The class of 2006 was the first required to pass AIMS to graduate.
“I think the big issue really is, if a student can’t pass a reasonable test, does that student get to graduate? I say no. Jason says yes,” Horne said.
Williams has painted Horne as an out-of-touch education bureaucrat, and touts his own teaching experience.
Horne has responded that, at 29, Williams is too young. He also said Williams never earned a teaching certificate, and taught just two years in a teacher recruitment program.
Williams said Horne hasn’t been transparent enough and accuses him of changing AIMS so many times that it’s impossible to compare student scores from one year to another.
He says it’s better to use students’ scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress, known as the “nation’s report card,” which shows Arizona students consistently lagging behind national averages for more than a decade.
“The nation’s report card has been the only consistent measure. There’s a huge discrepancy between the nation’s report card and the AIMS test.” Williams said.
Horne says the NAEP is not a reliable indicator of Arizona academics because it tests just 3,500 children in the state. He also brings up other studies.
“Rand did a study and Arizona ranked 22 out of 50 when adjusting for family background. So comparing to other states, we’re average and we’re spending 50th of the states. So I think in Arizona we’re doing better than the majority of other states,” Horne said
While Horne discusses accountability, Williams talks about helping poor schools.
For the past four years, Williams has served as director of the state’s Teach for America program.
He took part in the program himself after college, teaching at an Oakland, Calif., middle school for two years.
It’s experience that could cut both ways.
Williams has the support of the Arizona Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and teachers like his classroom experience.
But his close ties with Teach for America could also offend teachers who support unions. The unions have a tense history with the program because they think it undermines traditional pathways to teaching, Smith said.
Horne, meanwhile, touts his 24 years as a school board member and his record — specifically, implementing a graduation test and toughening state science and social studies standards.
He also paints himself as a maverick, challenging a federal court order to spend more money on English language education.
And, he’s one of a few state schools chiefs to openly criticize the federal No Child Left Behind law, which he says is unreasonable, especially for English learners and special education students.
“I think I’m the most outspoken critic in the country on this issue,” Horne said.
Education: Undergraduate degree in government, Harvard College, magna cum laude, 1967; JD, Harvard Law School, with honors, 1970
Career: Lawyer from 1970 to 2002
Political experience: 24 years on school board (10 as president), Paradise Valley Unified School District; Arizona Legislature, 1996 to 2000
Last book read: A biography of Benjamin Harrison
Major campaign issues:
• Social promotion. In the past, students were promoted and graduated even if they blew off their schoolwork, which caused learning to plummet. We have turned that around with the AIMS requirement for graduation. If the AIMS requirement is repealed, learning will plummet.
• English immersion. We have ended the failed experiment of bilingual education in which students were taught in Spanish. Now they are immersed in English. If we bring back bilingual education, it will be extremely academically damaging to the students.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science, Boston College, 1998
Career: Public school teacher; executive director of Teach for America
Political experience: Elected state teachers union representative in California
Last book read: “Mountains Beyond Mountains: Healing the World: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer,” by Tracy Kidder, the story of a doctor who does social justice work in Haiti.
Major campaign issues:
• Local leadership. The Arizona Department of Education should coordinate local leadership in school districts to involve community leaders and volunteers; have more high-profile volunteer programs in which individuals can help public schools.
• Early literacy. Develop better early child literacy, making sure that every child is reading on grade level by second grade by creating more intervention and “print-rich” environments at home, not just at school.