Republican Frank Riggs, who represented California in the U.S. House of Representatives for three terms in the 1990s and unsuccessfully sought the governor's seat in Arizona in 2014, is now running for the post of Superintendent of Public Instruction, challenging incumbent Republican Diane Douglas. Riggs recently appeared on the radio version of Zona Politics with Jim Nintzel, which airs Sundays at 5 p.m. on community radio KXCI, 91.3 FM. This is an edited and condensed transcript from that conversation.
Why did you decide you wanted to get in this race?
The future of our state and by extension the future of our country is directly tied to the quality of the education that our children, and in my case, grandchildren get. And I want to ensure that every Arizona school child has access to a high-quality education that prepares them for responsible adult citizenship so that they can play their role in our system of self-government. And prepares them to live a healthy, productive and moral adult life. I frankly think we've seen over the last few years with the incumbent, Mrs. Douglas, as Superintendent, that the Arizona Department of Education and our entire K-12 education system in the state, 2000-plus public schools, district and charter educating over 1.1 million school children in grades K-12, that we need real leadership. And I intend to provide that leadership.
You are challenging an incumbent Republican in a primary. What led you to decide that there needed to be a change there?
I think really the hallmarks of good leadership are integrity and effectiveness. I think she's failed on both counts. The department's been very poorly managed. Just in recent weeks we found out that the Department cannot properly account for $90 million in federal funding; this is federal funding for low-income students and for students with special needs or learning disabilities. And I think we also have learned that Mrs. Douglas has alienated the very people with whom she needs to build collegial working relationships in order to be effective. I really think Mrs. Douglas has marginalized herself. And I think, by comparison, that I have the deep and broad leadership experience to be an effective superintendent, to be a credible, articulate advocate on behalf of our parents and our students and our educators.
Education clearly is on a lot of people's minds in terms of the big issues facing the state at this point. What do you think the state really needs to do to improve education in Arizona?
We know that at the top of the list we have to pay our teachers competitively. We've got to get more dollars into the classroom to actually promote classroom teaching and learning. According to the State Auditor General, we are in an all-time low, with 54 cents of every K-12 dollar appropriated by the legislature actually making its way into the classroom. We've got to do more to help school districts and charter schools with their facility and their soft capital needs. It's a travesty, by the way, that any classroom teacher should ever have to pay out of pocket for basic supplies and materials. And we've got to pay attention to two other areas: One, our rural schools and our rural school districts. They have unique challenges; they don't have the economy of scale that the large metropolitan districts have, they have bigger challenges in attracting and keeping high quality personnel. And we've got to address what I call the achievement gap. I've been involved in education in all levels over three decades, beginning with being an elected school board member and president all the way up to Congress, where I chaired the House Education Subcommittee. And over that time we have seen one kind of fashionable trend after another come and go. And despite all that, we've learned over that time period that those schools that serve a large number of disadvantaged students, the students who comprise the achievement gap because they're living in poverty or they're low income or because they're limited or non-English speakers or they're students with special needs and learning disabilities or foster children or Native American students. I could go down the list, but the schools and school districts that serve large numbers of those students, those students are the ones that are entering the public schools already behind. They're developmentally behind peer and grade level. And unless they get the early intervention, the early and intensive intervention through individual and small group instruction, that gap, what we now call the achievement gap in education, only grows larger, wider in the later years.
Do we need more funding from the state or do we need to spend the money we're spending already in a different way?
We always need to strive for economy. And there may be certain situations through consolidation of school districts where you have the community that has basically an elementary district and then a high school district, where we can achieve some savings or economy through consolidation. We definitely need to reduce all the heavy-handed education regulation at the federal and state level. But that all said, we absolutely need to redesign; we need to reimagine and redesign how we fund our K-12 schools in Arizona. The problem is, the state budget today is the same as it was 10 years ago before the great recession. Yet we've added over a half-million new residents in the state. We have a corresponding increase in the demand, the need, for governmental services. Everything from K-12 education to public safety—the number of inmates obviously has increased in our correctional system.
Last year, the Arizona legislature passed a massive expansion of these Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, which allow the diversion of some state tax dollars to private and parochial, religious schools, whatever schools folks want to send their kids to.
What were your thoughts on that particular bit of legislation?
First of all I should say that I absolutely believe in empowering parents. I believe that parents are the first, most important and lifelong teacher of their own children. And they have an absolute fundamental right—and the flip side of that coin—responsibility to choose and direct their child's education. That all said, I'm the first to acknowledge that the optics of expanding Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, while at the same time proposing to give our teachers a 2 percent pay increase, weren't very good. And my advice behind the scenes was, when it became clear that the expansion of ESAs was going to be kept, I suggested means testing them. I said "Look, these Empowerment Scholarship Accounts should be means tested so as to give low-income parents priority because all too often they are living in neighborhoods or communities that have fewer educational options and choices."
They are always challenged with transportation, getting their child to the school of their choice. I think we have to approach this in a thoughtful, prudent way, and I don't think we can have this blanket expansion of ESAs at a time when we're hard pressed to stretch the K-12 education dollar.
You've talked a little bit about the folks not attending the school in their neighborhood. We've seen a real expansion of charter schools here in Arizona, experimenting with the idea of finding ways to educate kids in a different fashion What are your thoughts on the traditional neighborhood schools? Is that something whose time has passed?
I'm very cognizant that the great majority of our 1.1 million school children in grades K through 12 attend a public district school. And public district schools are the backbone of our K-12 education system. So, yes, we have educational freedom. Robust and diverse parental school choice in Arizona is in the mainstream and here to stay. But that all said, this notion that we can't have excellent public district schools and robust parental school choice—I think that's a false dichotomy, a false choice. So I promise that as superintendent, I will never lose sight of the fact that the great majority of our kids are still attending public district schools even though parents have other choices. And I want all of our schools, all of them, to be high quality and high performing. And I want every child, regardless of the educational model of the school chosen by the parent as the right fit for the child, I want every child to get a great education that prepares them for responsible adult citizenship.