Highlights from the superintendent debate.
Alyssa Williams, azcentral
Frank Riggs, the Republican aiming to become the state’s next Superintendent of Public Instruction, often exchanges barbs over classroom experience and qualifications with his Democratic opponent Kathy Hoffman.
Riggs, who represented California in Congress for three terms in the 1990s and later became a charter school development executive, often touts his political and business résumé.
Hoffman’s vita is considerably shorter, with stints in two school districts as a speech-language pathologist and time as a preschool teacher.
But Riggs’ record offers a glimpse into how he possibly could steer the state’s education system to favor charter schools. And, The Arizona Republic found, Riggs may be overstating some of his accomplishments as a congressman, according to records.
The election is Nov. 6.
The state schools superintendent is responsible for overseeing all Arizona public district and charter schools, is a member of the Arizona Board of Education, and sits on the 11-member Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, whose other members are appointed by the governor.
Sponsored charter school act
Riggs and Hoffman have repeatedly called for new, strict oversight of Arizona’s 500-plus charter schools.
But Riggs helped pave the way for charter schools to become big businesses.
Riggs, while in Congress, sponsored the Charter School Expansion Act of 1998. It sent federal grant money to charter schools to help with startup costs. He has boasted that the legislation helped many Arizona charter schools.
He also spent a decade growing the Maryland-based Charter Schools Development Corp., a non-profit company that provides loans so charters can build classrooms.
That company’s net assets, during Riggs’ tenure from 2004 to 2013, more than tripled to $33 million. His annual compensation increased more than five-fold to $413,127, records show.
As he ran the charter lending company, he helped establish Arizona Connections Academy, an online charter school, in 2005, state Corporation Commission records show.
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‘He’s profited from charter schools’
Hoffman likens her opponent’s extensive charter school experience to a fox guarding the henhouse.
She questions how someone so closely connected and well-compensated by the charter schools industry would push for reforms.
“He’s part of the problem. He’s profited from charter schools,” Hoffman said. “And, he’s been directly involved in charter school expansion. He’s helped develop the rules, and he touts himself as the father of charter schools. It is deeply concerning to me that he claims he wants to be part of the solution.”
Riggs said his experience with charter schools is the perfect antidote to clean up numerous problems in Arizona’s loosely regulated industry.
He said some charter schools in Arizona have strayed from the original intent to provide academic freedom and different ways for students to learn. He said they never were intended to make operators wealthy.
“It (experience) gives me in-depth knowledge as schools superintendent and a member of the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools to bring about reforms,” Riggs said. “I don’t think she (Hoffman) has a clue.”
Riggs had a history of calling for oversight of charter schools while in Congress.
In 1997, while his Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth and Families was holding hearings on charter schools, Riggs said charter and district schools should be held to the same standards.
“It’s only fair,” he said then. “If you don’t produce academic results, you should be held strictly accountable. Likewise, if a school mismanages money, it should be strictly accountable.”
Riggs and Hoffman each have been critical of state Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, who is selling his Benjamin Franklin charter schools to a non-profit company that he created.
The move will result in a multimillion-dollar profit for Farnsworth, who voted to increase state funding for his and other charter schools while in the Legislature. Farnsworth has claimed he broke no laws.
Candidates’ proposed charter reforms
Although both candidates have called for sweeping changes to charter schools, they could not unilaterally make most of the changes.
In most cases, they would need the Legislature’s approval. However, the state schools’ superintendent has a “bully pulpit” that can be used to shape public opinion, and it can help craft policy changes at the state Charter Board.
Riggs, who unsuccessfully ran for Arizona governor four years ago, said his reforms would include:
- Barring lawmakers from sponsoring or voting on legislation that would financially benefit them or any family members who run charter schools.
- Phasing out for-profit charter school companies and having them become non-profit entities if they want to stay in business. Board members must receive formal training to avoid conflicts of interest, and a majority of a charter school board must have no ties to the school operators.
- Ending self-dealing so charter owners cannot be enriched through no-bid contracts with other companies they have direct financial connections to the charter. All business deals must be arm’s-length transactions.
- Making charter management companies open their books for financial transparency. Charter organizations now hire management firms to run their schools. That allows schools to transfer millions of tax dollars to a private company, which does not have to disclose how public funds are being used. Some organizations, like Basis Charter Schools Inc., hire companies run by people closely tied to the school.
“Full transparency leads to full accountability,” Riggs said. “People are smart enough to look at financial details and determine if everything has been done at an arm’s-length, market-based basis.”
Hoffman said her reforms would include:
- Ending self-dealing or insider deals on business transactions with charter operators.
- Requiring charter schools to follow the same procurement and conflict-of-interest laws as school districts.
- Having equitable funding for district and charter schools. Currently, charter schools receive up to $2,100 more in per-student state funding than district schools because charters cannot seek local voter approval for budget overrides or building bonds.
- Giving district schools the freedom to operate specialized schools as charters do. That would allow districts, for example, to open schools that focus on music or the arts. Districts once were able to operate charter schools, but the Legislature took away that opportunity.
The opening statements from the Arizona superintendent candidates.
Alyssa Williams, azcentral
Record offers glimpse of education platform
Riggs, on his campaign website, lists eight pieces of legislation that he either authored, co-authored or co-sponsored while in Congress.
He doesn’t say on his site whether they passed, although he does link to his full congressional history on congress.gov.
At least half of his proposed pieces of legislation did not make it to law, national congressional records show.
“I’m not trying to create a misimpression,” he said. “I’m trying to show the whole body of work. … We were working as a team to move the ball with respect to a pretty ambitious agenda.”
For instance, Riggs writes that he is the principal author of the “Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Act.” However, an act by that name originally became a law in 1974, long before Riggs was a lawmaker.
On Congress’ website, he is listed as the author of the “Juvenile Crime Control and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1997.” That act passed the House but was never voted on in the Senate.
“In every instance, the legislation made progress,” Riggs said.
A small fraction of national legislation is typically signed into law.
In the 104th Congress, during one of Riggs’s terms, 4 percent of all legislation introduced that session was enacted.
He did play an important role in reauthorizing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1997, as he often notes in public appearances.
“We reinforced parental rights, and we really put an emphasis on early education,” he said.
School voucher proponent
Riggs championed school voucher programs in several education bills. Such programs allow the use of state money for private-school educations.
He authored the Helping Empower Low-income Parents Scholarships bill in 1998, according to his website.
Online, he describes HELP as “converting the largest federal funding program for K-12 education into vouchers.”
Congress.gov shows Riggs introduced a bill by that name three times; the House voted on it once and it was defeated.
Under the proposed legislation, states would have been allowed to use federal money to create voucher programs specifically geared to low-income families.
Riggs says HELP is consistent with his position on expanding Arizona’s polarizing voucher-style program, the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA).
Voters in November will consider Proposition 305, a ballot initiative that asks whether to keep or do away with an expansion of the program.
Riggs is against Prop. 305, but has said several times that low-income families should be prioritized in the system.
“Historically, low-income families have fewer choices,” he said.
At a recent KJZZ debate, he said universal vouchers specifically would “decimate” public schools.
The closing statements of the Arizona superintendent candidates.
Alyssa Williams, azcentral
Emphasized immersion for ELL
Riggs also lists himself as the author of the English Language Fluency Act, “requiring federally funded programs for students with Limited English Proficiency to emphasize English Immersion.”
The House passed the bill in 1998, but it was not voted on in the Senate, according to congress.gov.
The legislation would have ended the then-existing bilingual education system in favor of block grants for states to use, emphasizing English immersion and an end to bilingual programs. A state would no longer be required to teach in a student’s native language.
“Our focus was on fast-tracking to English immersion,” he said.
Arizona has more than 80,000 English language learners, according to the Arizona Department of Education. Since Riggs’s time in Congress, state education officials have steered towards more emphasis on English immersion rather than native language instruction.
Riggs also opposes affirmative action in college admissions. In 1998, he introduced an amendment that would have ended the practice by denying federal aid to participating colleges. He remembers the battle over that amendment as “contentious.”
The House rejected that amendment.
Head Start provision over paternity
On his website, Riggs writes that he was named “legislator of the year” by the National Head Start Association. Head Start is a federal program that offers early childhood education to low-income families across the country.
Riggs is credited as a defender of Head Start during budget cuts in a 1995 Los Angeles Times op-ed.
But three years later, in 1998, Riggs proposed several controversial provisions to Head Start that could have held up the program’s renewal, according to congressional records and news clips from that time.
According to an Associated Press article at the time, one provision of Riggs’ Head Start amendment would have banned “children from the program if their mothers do not help to locate their fathers in order to collect child support.”
Another would have introduced vouchers, allowing Head Start parents to use those funds for non-Head Start preschool programs.
The Associated Press called the fight over the provisions a “partisan battle” that “endangers funding for Head Start” in a 1998 headline.
Riggs said the paternity provision was meant to conform with a federal welfare law.
“This was noncontroversial and should not be taken out of context,” he said.
The provisions were eventually dropped.
Join us for a discussion about education
What: Azcentral and HuffPost are hosting a free community event to talk about education.
When: “The Academics And Economics Of School Choice: A Parent-Led Discussion” will be held Oct. 18 at the Tempe Center for the Arts Lakeside Room. Doors open at 6 p.m.; the forum begins at 7 p.m.
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