Arizona schools chief John Huppenthal sparred with his Republican primary challenger, Diane Douglas, Tuesday evening in a debate that focused on the state's new Common Core school standards but also touched on anonymous blog posts Huppenthal made that forced him to apologize.
The debate between GOP candidates for superintendent of public instruction featured tough exchanges as Huppenthal defended Common Core as a program he was trying to craft to meet Arizona's conservative standards and Douglas called it federal government overreach that prevent teachers from working with students.
Huppenthal again apologized for blog posts that denigrated welfare recipients and other postings that were seen by some as racist because they demanded that Spanish-language media be eliminated. But he said voters are looking at improvements he's made in school oversight.
"When I go out into the community and talk to people, what they're interested in is how we're moving education forward," he said.
But Douglas said he just couldn't back away from his own words.
"I don't know how one repudiates their own statement and makes comments that it was what was in their mind and in their hearts," she said, going on to criticize Huppenthal for allowing Department of Education employees to treat teachers opposed to Common Core with disrespect.
Douglas, a former Peoria Unified School District board member, called Common Core "top-down government control of our education system."
"The federal government has no role in local education whatsoever — they're using our money to coerce us to do things," Douglas said.
Huppenthal, a former state lawmaker seeking a second term running the Department of Education, said he has a strong record of fighting the federal government, including winning court cases that eliminated a Tucson schools ethnic studies program and fighting off changes to the state's English learning program. He called that program especially a success.
"We have an absolute requirement that students learn to read, speak and write English before they move into our regular classrooms — and that program has been a spectacular success," Huppenthal said.
Responding to moderator Ted Simons' question about whether she was a single-issue candidate focused on Common Core, Douglas said that was the biggest issue out there.
"Common Core isn't a single issue — Common Core is the issue of education," Douglas said. "It tells us what we must teach and how we must test our children, which will control curriculum. It tells us how we must evaluate and compensate our teachers. It tells us how we how we must grade our schools. And it has a data collection system on children that rival communist Chinese."
Huppenthal said Douglas is embracing a flawed and politicized description of Common Core. He called the reading standards, for one, "an absolute conservative victory that we are teaching reading through phonics."
"I'm going to partner with the next governor and very systematically do a review of these standards to ensure that we keep all of our conservative gains and we address any issues that conservatives have about these standards," Huppenthal said.