Arizona has never had anyone quite like Kathy Hoffman elected to statewide office and now as the state's top elected education official, she's in charge of leading schools through the pandemic.
When she won her race in 2018 at age 32, Hoffman was the youngest person in the United States to be elected to a statewide office. She was sworn in at age 33 and now, at 34 years old, is leading the state's educators and students through the pandemic. While there's no guidebook for how to handle these unprecedented times, Hoffman is uniquely qualified. She's the first public educator in two decades elected as superintendent of public instruction.
"I feel very strongly the fighting does not get us anywhere. It doesn’t serve the people. It’s a very strong value for me," Hoffman told TMRW. "I like to focus on working together and figuring out how to get things done, especially during COVID when everything is so divisive and people have strong opinions about whether schools should open, whether or not there should be masks and these different components, I see my role as trying to hold steady and not be swayed by the divisiveness and to stay true to what our schools need."
Hoffman never planned to enter politics. She worked as a speech language pathologist at a Title 1 school in Arizona, where she helped some of the state's most vulnerable students, but after watching the confirmation hearings for Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who doesn't have a background in education, she felt fed up and the need to something.
Hoffman decided to launch a campaign for superintendent of public instruction as a Democrat.
"We need educators to lead our public schools," she said.
Learning and leading during the coronavirus pandemic
As Arizona's top elected official leading the Department of Education, Hoffman is navigating something her counterparts across the United States are also dealing with: how to make sure students aren't left behind during the pandemic.
In Arizona, she said quality internet access has been an issue in some parts of the state.
"I know for a fact some students don't have adequate access to education right now. It’s not fault of the child or the family or the school. It's limited access to adequate internet. Even in our urban areas, there are situations where a family can have internet but at a low bandwidth," Hoffman said. "The substitute for that is schools are preparing packets and trying to invest as best as we can."
But there are positive stories of ingenuity and innovation and Hoffman is eager to share those, too. She cited one example, in Holbrook, Arizona, a town of 5,000 people, where a renovated bus was equipped with WiFi and is being used as a hotspot for students to connect and work.
WiFi, however, isn't the only issue. Other older students, she said, might be skipping school in order to go to work and make money to help support their families. And then there are some students who don't have the family support they need at home.
"I am worried about funding going forward because we have had a decline in enrollment," she said. "Then there's state testing and accountability."
On the contrary, Hoffman said some students and families are having positive experiences with learning during the pandemic.
"We do have kids thriving in the online environment. Some families are loving home schooling. Some of these trends will continue (even after there's a vaccine)," she said. "For our schools, there's a lot to figure out."
Arizona's structure also makes this challenge even more complex. Hoffman oversees the state's public school system when it comes to items such as funding and testing, but Arizona is a local control state.
That means individual school districts get to decide between virtual or in-person classes. The result has been a patchwork of arrangements across the state, from in-person to virtual learning, from diligent COVID reporting to schools that Hoffman said she'd like to see do a better job of disclosing cases.
In addition to the coronavirus, Arizona also has a teacher shortage. There were more than 1,700 teacher positions weren't filled as of Aug. 31, according to a annual survey from the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association.
With the coroanvirus pandemic making teachers' jobs even more challenging, Hoffman said she also wants to make sure districts are checking in with their educators.
“I have strongly advocated for our schools to be over-communicating with teachers and ask how they can be supportive," she said.
Arizona, a state that last voted for a Democratic president in 1996, can quite literally, be the Wild West when it comes to politics. In the two years since she entered politics, Hoffman has had to deal with online smears.
Hoffman took her oath of office on "Too Many Moose!” a children's book she used in her work at schools to help students overcome speech impediments. Social media conspiracy theorists jumped on the moment and tried to sow disinformation about Hoffman.
“She swore her oath on a Dr. Seuss book!” said one post. “She is pushing sex education on kindergartners that teaches them masturbation, kinky sex, etc.”
Another circulated post claimed Hoffman "wants boys experimenting with makeup to be added to the elementary education curriculum" and that she is "grooming our children for pedophiles." It's all, of course, completely untrue, but an unfortunate reality of entering politics at a time when social media feels more polarized than ever.
When asked if the smears bother her and how she handles them, Hoffman said she "stays focused" on her job and making sure she's serving all Arizonans.
Earlier this year,Hoffmane spoke out against a bill that would ban discussions of homosexuality in sex education at the state's public and charter schools, warning it could undo the progress the state has done and set it up for a potential lawsuit. The bill was pulled a few days later.
“Politics is the worst part. I see myself more as an elected educator," Hoffman said. "I don’t consider myself to be a politician. I don’t relate to that."