How much will school choice define Arizona’s education superintendent race?

Editor’s note: This opinion has been updated to clarify Frank Riggs’ stance on Proposition 305.

How much will school choice define the state education superintendent race?

It’s a question worth asking now that we officially know the lineup for the November election.

Frank Riggs beat Bob Branch in the Republican primary by a mere 249 votes. He’ll face Kathy Hoffman, who pulled off a far more decisive victory in the Democratic primary.

Where Riggs and Hoffman stand

Riggs on Facebook that he’s running in part to “defend (school) choice,” suggesting he intends to make this a key part of his campaign. 

He founded a charter school and helped pass charter-school legislation as a California congressman. But he says he does not support Proposition 305, a referendum on the November ballot that would expand the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program. Riggs contends that any expansion should be means tested, the maximum dollar amount for an ESA increased and low-income families given priority.

Hoffman also has made overtures about school choice, touting greater accountability and diversity for charter schools in a recent Facebook post.

She is a former public-school teacher who has been critical of how charter schools enroll students and bid contracts, and she has said she would work with the federal Office of Civil Rights to investigate allegations that some charter schools boot students for poor performance.

Hoffman says she’s against Prop. 305 because “our school districts cannot afford to have their budgets depleted by vouchers.”

Voters would have a clear choice

That’s not all that divides Riggs and Hoffman, of course, and I hope the race doesn’t just focus on school choice. Because there are other issues that deserve attention, including how they’d run the Department of Education, which has suffered from low morale and high turnover under their predecessor, Diane Douglas, and where they’d take the school funding debate now that Invest in Ed is off the ballot.

But lots of people are talking about whether district and charter schools should continue playing by different rules – not to mention whether private schools should get public money to educate students. They are hot, relevant issues worth debating.

And the candidates have clear policy differences that could help define their values for voters.

Even if the education superintendent has limited power in changing the rules that govern how district, charter and private schools operate. 

Reach Allhands at joanna.allhands@arizonarepublic.com.

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