3-way school debate covers AIMS, vouchers, tax credit
The Arizona Republic
Sept. 10, 2006

Josh Kelley

Tom Horne defended his job performance as state superintendent of public instruction in a debate Saturday with two Democrats seeking to unseat him in November.

But first, Jason Williams, head of Teach for America in Phoenix, or Slade Mead, a former state senator and school board member, must win the Democratic primary Tuesday to face Horne, a Republican, in the Nov. 7 general election.

The debate, which touched on topics ranging from AIMS to vouchers, took place at the Arizona School Boards Association's annual School Law Conference in Litchfield Park.

Mead said failure to pass the AIMS test should not automatically disqualify a student from high school graduation. Instead, districts should determine the requirements for graduation and incorporate standardized testing into those requirements, Mead said.

Horne defended AIMS, saying the test was developed with the input of teachers.

The requirement to pass AIMS, or Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards, has motivated students to study harder, Horne said. Test scores have improved, and the vast majority of high school seniors passed, Horne said.

Horne and Mead oppose vouchers and school tax-credit contributions, which Horne said unfairly benefit private schools under state law.

Williams was more emphatic about his opposition, saying he is "100 percent
(against) anything that takes public dollars and our children out of the school system."

Williams said public education is "under attack" and promised to do everything in his power, including litigation, to stop vouchers.

Williams said charter schools should be held to the same standards as other public schools and accused some charter schools of moving to the "realm of religion."

Mead said charter schools should be forced to employ certified teachers and surrender some of their assets to the state, instead of owners, if the schools fold.

Horn said he's pushing school districts to tone down hostility toward charter schools. When he was a school board member, he said, some parents who were perturbed with traditional public schools found that charter schools provided alternative offerings and philosophies.

"They were happy. Their kids were happy, and I was happy because they stopped calling me," Horne said.

Mead said Arizona is not pursuing federal grants with enough aggression.

"We leave a lot of money on the table," said Mead, who also accused legislators of dismantling the education system.

"I would have no problem hitting the campaign stump to go after these people," he said.

Horne said he argued this year for a $150 million increase in state spending for teacher salaries, and the Legislature approved $100 million, an amount Horne called an "adequate compromise."

Horne said federal funds could be more difficult to obtain because he's suing the federal government over its decision to hold schools accountable for the standardized test scores of English-language learners after only one year of learning English.

"I'm suing them, and they're sore about it," Horne said.

Williams, a former sixth-grade math and science teacher, said recruiting teachers is a top priority.

"We really don't have a clear and aggressive plan for how we deal with the teacher shortage," he said.

Mead also called the state teacher certification process "abysmal" because it has different requirements than federal certification standards.