Tom Horne: Here's my plan to raise Arizona student achievement

Tom Horne, a Republican, is the newly elected Arizona schools superintendent.
Tom Horne, a Republican, is the newly elected Arizona schools superintendent.

When I announced that I was running for superintendent of schools, a position I served in from 2003-11, my friends, remembering that I had been Arizona attorney general, told me I was going backwards.

“No” I answered, “the big problem is in the schools, and that is what I want to  work on.”

These are my eight priorities. Some I can do on my own authority. For others I will need to work with the Legislature, governor or state Board of Education.

Priority number one is raising test scores. Here is how we do that:

1. Help failing schools do better

The chief objective is achievement, with school improvement teams helping schools do better, as we had when I was superintendent. A consultant who works with failing schools told me that they have not had any help from the department in a number of years.

2. If that doesn't help, take over schools

When assistance doesn't help, Arizona law provides that the state can take over failing districts. When I would post a notice for a hearing to do that, they got the message, and test scores came up without a takeover. That has not been done since.

3. Make students test to graduate

When I was superintendent, students had to pass a state test to graduate. When I left, this was repealed.

So, teachers say to students, “I need you to do well on the test,” students say, “Why should I?” and they leave early. It is not fair to hold teachers accountable if we do not hold students accountable. We need to bring the test requirement back.

Database:How Arizona schools performed in 2021-22 standardized tests

4. Nix 'social emotional learning'

My heroes are math teachers who love math, history teachers who love history, and so on. A number have complained to me that they want to teach their subjects bell to bell, but can’t because under social emotional learning they have to play what they describe as “dumb games” during class time.

The following letter from a teacher is typical of what I was told orally:

The end of the quarter is Friday. We have been focusing on social emotional learning for weeks. Not a rigorous curriculum. Kids simply waste time digging deep into their identities. This has been going on for weeks. If parents knew our English curriculum is zero they would probably pull their students out. I am very concerned. It is as if America wants us to have dumb uneducated students in English class.

No wonder test scores dropped.

Every school should have a counselor, but teachers should be allowed to focus on their subjects.

5. Eliminate critical race theory

I believe we are all individuals, brothers and sisters under the skin, entitled to be judged by what we know, what we can do, our character, ability to appreciate beauty, and so on. Race is irrelevant to anything. Critical race theory teaches the opposite, that race is primary. They divide students into “oppressors” and “oppressed” based on what race they were born into, which is not their fault.

Here is a direct quote of what the Tucson district taught students before I put a stop to it in 2010. I got it directly from their curriculum: “Unlike traditional civil rights, which embraces incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory addresses the very foundation of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, enlightenment rationalism and neutral principles of constitutional law.”

Wherever I go, I ask liberals why the critical race theory movement would be against “enlightenment rationalism” or any of the other concepts listed in the quote. No one knew.

I believe this was the biggest philosophical divide of any statewide race. Are we individuals or are we exemplars of what race we happen to have been born into?

Some say critical race theory is a graduate study, not taught in K-12 schools. False.

I have a list of 250 Arizona teachers who signed a shocking statement promoted by the national teachers’ union, that if critical race theory were banned, they would defy the law. They would not have signed if they were not already teaching it. They come from 25 school districts, including the largest ones.

Teachers must teach academics, not use their power over a captive audience, to promote their personal ideology.  That is unprofessional conduct.

6. Restore student discipline

Social emotional learning tells teachers to not discipline students because it might hurt their feelings. But students cannot learn in an undisciplined environment. Now, students are getting away with outrageous misbehavior, and teachers are leaving the profession because they can’t take it anymore.

I would leave under those circumstances, too.

7. Empower parents with school choice

With universal Empowerment Scholarship Accounts that the Legislature approved last session, people with less money now have choices that people with more money always had. Competition is always good − for everyone.

8. Place a police officer in every school

People who say they want gun-free schools are saying, “Come get me. I’m an easy victim.”

Students need to be safe and academically successful. Then they’ll feel good about themselves.

Tom Horne, a Republican, served as state superintendent of public instruction for two terms beginning in 2003 and was Arizona attorney general from 2011 to 2014. Reach him at

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona schools chief Tom Horne: How I'll raise student achievement