Two days after voters approved him as the next state superintendent of public instruction, John Huppenthal acknowledged the challenge ahead of him is "a little like moving Mt. Everest."
"We have a system - when you total it up - of well over 2 million people," he said of the students, teachers and staff involved in public education. "You really have to think in terms of a massive, massive system. You have to have a ton of knowledge of what you're about if you want to make a difference."
"I've spent a lot of time reading and researching all the different routes to failure and to make sure above all we don't replicate that," he said.
Almost 56 percent of voters picked Huppenthal over former Arizona Education Association president and longtime educator Penny Kotterman, according to unofficial results Thursday.
While AEA has close ties with Kotterman, the teachers union is ready to work with Huppenthal.
"I've had a long relationship with John. He's well researched. But he's not been in teaching," said AEA president Andrew Morrill. "He really needs to surround himself with people who are in education. He needs to do what good leaders do: look at his strengths and put people around him who have expertise he does not have."
Dawn Koberstein, president of the Chandler Education Association and a 17-year-educator, said she is "hopeful" having a new superintendent in the state will set a vision "to bring all stakeholders together."
"It's going to allow for a chance to set a new vision and a new course for which we can make change for education," she said.
Almost immediately, Huppenthal will inherit a department that potentially faces more cuts. Lawmakers balanced this year's budget with hopes voters would approve two measures that would pump about $450 million into the general fund. But voters turned down both Propositions 301 and 302.
Education and health care are the state's biggest expenses, making them easy targets for potential cuts.
"We could face an absolutely severe situation, but we know no matter how severe the situation is we cannot only maintain, we can improve outcomes for our kids," Huppenthal said. "That's not going to be an excuse. We are going to move forward."
Though there may be "tough decisions," Huppenthal said he wants to keep the focus on teachers.
"All our decisions have to center around supporting teachers in the classroom. Everything is about the disciplined, organized classroom with well-supported teachers. There's enough money in the system to get that done even with a severe resource restraint."
One of his first actions will be to gather and analyze data about school districts with high teacher satisfaction. Research shows, he said, that those districts also are doing the most to academically move students forward.
Huppenthal wants to identify details about what the top 10 districts in the state are doing, from their teacher development programs to their technology to their accounting systems. He then wants that put out there for others to replicate.
He also plans to continue with his strong support of school choice in the state and increasing opportunities for all students.
"The only way we're going to have excellent education for every student is to make sure every parent has many choices to find the best education for their child," he said. "We're going to expand the school choice movement everywhere we can, along with accountability. We have to help parents select great schools."
Mesa teacher Mike McClellan is concerned about so much emphasis on school choice.
"I think we're in for a contentious four years because I believe that Sen. Huppenthal has a very clear agenda that will meet resistance inside the education community in part because he seems to believe that choice is a kind of panacea for what ails education," the Dobson High School English teacher said.
But Huppenthal said that he thinks rather highly of Arizona's district schools. So, what would he tell parents moving to the state about public education here?
"I would tell them we have some great schools for your kids and these great schools exist in our district school system," he said. "We have district schools, public district schools in the top 1 percent of the nation. From that standpoint we're almost a gem amongst all the states.
"In a lot of states there are no choices for parents. That choice is where you buy a house. If that isn't great for your kids, you're stuck. It's very difficult to get another choice. In Arizona every parent has as many as 20 choices or more, so there are a lot of options out there."