Meet The Women Leading Education Reform In Arizona

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Monday, September 9, 2019 - 3:10pm
Updated: Tuesday, September 10, 2019 - 8:06am

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LAUREN GILGER: Arizona has seen the rise of several grassroots education movements since 2017. Movements that didn't just make waves but also made real, tangible change at the state level. Save Our Schools Arizona defied their many naysayers in their 2017 fight against the expansion of school vouchers. Red for Ed followed in 2018 to win salary bumps for teachers. And a political newcomer beat the odds against well-known opponents to claim the highest seat in the state's education system. And what did all these movements have in common? Women led the charge and emerged as some of the leading voices on education in Arizona today. Joining us now are three of those leaders. Save Our Schools Arizona communications director Dawn Penich-Thacker, Arizona Education Association vice president Marisol Garcia and of course Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman. Welcome to you all.

GROUP: Thank you for having us.

Dawn Penich-Thacker, Kathy Hoffman and Marisol Garcia
Dawn Penich-Thacker, Arizona Department of Education, Marisol Garcia
From left: Dawn Penich-Thacker, Kathy Hoffman and Marisol Garcia.

GILGER: So I want to start with sort of a broad question, but I mean this isn't surprising in some sense, right, because education is a pretty women-dominated field. But do you think that's the only reason that women sort of have emerged as the leaders here? Is it is it just that there are a lot of women here, or is it is it more than that, you think?

MARISOL GARCIA: Well I think as an educator, I think there were at 80% women in the profession. And so that's the first data point to look at. But secondly, I think women in education have been leading this charge for quite some time. Almost 100 years ago, women were forming associations and working together to fight for their kids. And so many of the educators you saw wearing red were also doing that not just for their 30 to 35 students in the classroom but also for their families at home. So this was a a double down kind of thing where we were fighting for daily work but also evening work. We wanted to make sure our kids had the best education.

KATHY HOFFMAN: I would agree with all of that. But I think there are some other points — that also Arizona does have a history of having a lot of strong female leaders. And I think that that's very empowering. And then I think another point to look at when we're just considering the last couple years is — and I'll speak for me personally — that I was also feeling empowered by the Women's March and seeing women turning out for issues that are affecting us. And I think that that kind of also trickled into the fight for public education.

DAWN PENICH-THACKER: And I would take that even further back in history to make the point that it's always been women who have advocated for women. It was women who agitated for women's right to vote. It was women who agitated for child labor laws and child abuse laws. And so this is kind of one more step in a long historical timeline of of women coming to the aid of women, women coming to the aid of children.

GILGER: So the other interesting part of this is that the women-led movements here also seemed to be the ones that people doubted would happen the most, right? Like Dawn, Save Our Schools — no one thought you'd even get the signatures to get on the ballot, let alone win. And ditto for you Kathy. Everyone thought that the guy with the better known name in politics would definitely get this. And then you actually beat him and then won. Do you think that that you were underestimated? Do you think that this is a product of women leading the way that these movements were or underestimated from the beginning?

PENICH-THACKER: Yeah I think women unfortunately are almost always underestimated. And maybe the silver lining is that then we get an even cooler victory when we when we get the job done. But unfortunately no matter how many times women accomplish amazing things, that devaluing of women's work and women's passion continues to hang on a bit. But we're chipping away at it.

HOFFMAN: That's exactly right. I've been thinking a lot about this notion of the glass ceiling, and we're always saying that women are breaking through these glass ceilings. And so I'm actually the youngest elected woman to statewide office in the country. And so, for myself I've been saying, "Wow, it's kind of like breaking through this glass ceiling and being young female leader." But then I've been thinking about what that means to say there is a glass ceiling — and I see this across all areas of various professions, not just education and not just politics — but I just think we need to forget the glass ceiling. We need to say there's no boundaries for women. And yes it's great to be recognized for that accomplishment, especially when you beat the odds. But I think that, especially for our young girls, we need to just say there's no boundaries and you can do anything. And we should not base any of that on your gender.

GILGER: Marisol, you're nodding.

RedForEd rally
Jackie Hai/KJZZ
#RedForEd supporters march at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix on April 27, 2018.

GARCIA: Well I think that one of the things that was so important when we were organizing and getting ready to walk out was the impact that it was having on these students in our classrooms. And most importantly for our female students, there were no restrictions on who should be doing this. It was kind of like, "Well those are the people doing it, so I'm up next" when they saw an injustice or they see something wrong. I can't even tell you the dozens of former students that came up to me like, "That's my 7th-grade social studies teacher on TV calling for a walkout," and how that must have impacted them to not only see a woman — a woman in labor — but to compound that with the fact that a woman of color making these seps towards ensuring that they have the great schools that they deserved. I mean, I think we won't know the true impacts of this work for decades because our granddaughters will be able to know that's just the norm — of course women did that.

GILGER: Yeah you break the ceiling, and then it's theoretically gone. Was there a moment for any of you in all of this when you were really frustrated by this? Like, did you have a moment where you know somebody said something to you, or you were you know asked a question that just made you angry?

HOFFMAN: I was personally told time and time again, Why are you even doing this? You know you're going to lose." And I was told that repeatedly throughout the campaign. But little did they know, it actually inspired me more, and the passion and fire actually became, if nothing else more passionate. And maybe a little competitive and wanted to prove them wrong. But I think that maybe other other young girls may not have persisted, and they might have been defeated or discouraged, and I think that we really need to be mindful of of the encouragement that we're providing and the advice we're giving and to not that those expectations of failure.

PENICH-THACKER: Yeah I think I mean I'm sure I'm not alone. I've heard all kinds of horrible kinds of questions or comments not even just back when we were first starting these movements but as recently as this week. Statements about, "How good of a mother can you be if you're doing this?" or "How much are you actually paying attention to your students if you're always working on that?" It's really hard to hear those things, but it also kind of rolls off your back when you're a woman because you have been hearing these kinds of devaluing critical statements your whole life. And I don't know, I just — women make it work, you know? I take my kids with me, and I expose them to what it means to work and and to get active for what you believe in. And I talk about these issues in class where appropriate. And that really enriches what we're doing in class. And so you hear that criticism, and you just have to sit with the confidence that no, I'm I'm doing this for my kids I'm doing this for my students. I'm not taking away from anything. Earlier this week, over the weekend, my son who's 10 wanted to know if I'm going to run for president one day. And I said well, no I don't think that is something that's of interest to me. And I said, "You know buddy, you know how much time I already have to spend working on this stuff? I would have to spend even more." And this little 10-year-old boys says "Yeah, but it's worth it. It's really cool. I would vote for you." And it was like, OK. So then I feel like it's not just me telling myself that my kids value this and that our students value this. It came from his own mouth. So it's like, "OK. I'm OK."

GILGER: So it was when each of you decided to take on these roles and go public in this way and be the face of these movements in this way, was it in your mind that you wanted to be an example for young women especially and that putting women in these leadership roles was an important part of this? Or was this just sort of what happened?

GARCIA: Yeah I think for me I wasn't necessarily aware that I want to do this because I'm a woman, but I also know that I wanted to follow in footsteps of other women that I looked up to. I had always just gravitated to people like Dolores Huerta and my mother, who was a teacher for 40 years. I want to be like them. But I had somebody that looked like me that spoke issues to my heart. And so, since being elected vice president, I think that I more and more find people who are so grateful to have somebody that looks like them leading and speaking like them. As a mother and as a classroom teacher, there's more responsibility with that. But I think you feel more powerful because you know that your words are being taken in by other generations of people saying like, "Oh I want to be like that person," which is incredibly almost awestruck like, "They wanna be like me?".

GILGER: You've all sort of hit on that that thought, right? You get to be an example in this way that is really an opportunity, but also like that's a lot of pressure. Is there a layer of that where you're sort of like, "Maybe I could have just stayed and done my regular thing and it would have been easier"?

HOFFMAN: Oh definitely. There's definitely times when you think I could be doing something else that would be a lot easier. But to me it's not worth it to step aside. This is worth it to be leading and to be making an impact and be influential and in a way that I never could have imagined. And so while yes, it's tempting to say, "Oh I could have a much more relaxing job, or I could go back to the classroom, which I absolutely loved" — those sounds nice in concept, but I think that people rely on us and look to us. And I think that for me, at least, it's better for us to embrace that opportunity and to see what a difference we can make because we are making a difference at a state level and even at the national level, people are looking to us for the work we've been doing here in Arizona for all of us.

GARCIA: Yeah. I mean I I feel like it just as a gift that I've been given to be able to be part of a national labor movement that is being led by women across the country to discuss the most important thing that should be talked about which is education. And to be able to be in it — I kind of pinch myself on a daily basis, like this is really happening. And in fact that did that did happen the first day of the march. Joe and I were walking towards this group, which we didn't think was going to even be half the size that it was. And he kind of pulled me aside and said, "We really need to stop for a moment, because this is really happening." And there's a picture that his wife took of us just kind of with our heads down like this is really happening. And so I pushed myself to remember that feeling that we broke some barriers but for me as a woman standing on that stage, it was everything that I could ever dream and that I couldn't ever wish it away because it was just so powerful. And seeing the masses of people fighting for our kids — I'll never be able to replace that memory. And I think a lot of educators across state feel the same way.

GILGER: Do you think there's an extra leap that that women leaders have to take to sort of believe that they are capable of doing it? Was that difficult for all of you to sort of say like, "Yeah, I am the one who should do this" and own that?

HOFFMAN: Another question I I received frequently throughout the campaign was, "Well, what leadership skills do you have to lead the Department of Education?" And that was a question I got all the time. But one thing I realized, and I see this especially for women and also I saw this firsthand in the classroom, was we are leaders within our community, as educators and as women. And so I knew that in my heart, but hearing people questioning me like "What leadership skills do you have?" so often — It started to chip away at my confidence of, well, "Do I have the leadership skills that are needed?" And then when I took office, I was really grateful to have such a strong team of support, and my transition team and everybody around me helped me feel empowered to be making big decisions about the direction of the department. But there was still every once in a while those feelings of, "Can I pull this off? Can I do this? Am I qualified? Am I capable? How did I get here?" It was such a big jump, but thankfully with having such a great team behind me and also support from the community, I've managed to work through those doubts.

GILGER: I want to ask about the sort of national framework you've all mentioned, I think. So this isn't obviously just happening here in Arizona. The country is seeing women step up and take leadership roles, run for office. This "Me Too" movement has resulted in record numbers of women doing that. What do you think is happening right now? Why do you think this is this is happening right now, and it seems even more so in Arizona?

HOFFMAN: I think there are many factors especially when we look nationally, but one factor I have to point to is the rhetoric coming from our president is, I feel, personally deeply offensive and an attack on women. And I think that is part of what resulted in — well, exactly what helped result in the women's marches that have taken place. And then the "Me Too" movement, I think, has also stemmed from that in some ways. So I personally feel that, on a regular basis when I read the news at the national level, that I do feel a sense of an attack on women's rights. And I think that's part of why we're seeing so many women stepping up and running for office, realizing that we need a stronger voice in leadership positions and especially in our political process to change policies and laws.

GARCIA: Well I think the rhetoric also leads us to want to have those discussions with our own children, and they're acutely aware of what's happening. I have a 13-year-old at home that, on the way to school every day asks me these huge monumental questions. And it's kind of like, wait we only have five minutes to get to school. But I think the younger generation, because of social media, because of the internet have so much exposure to news and articles and videos, and they want to engage in this conversation. And for them it is new but acceptable to have people of different genders leading different things. So they want to understand why is one portion of the country talking like this when it's just normalized at home. My mom runs things. My mom does has meetings. Why is that odd for other people to understand? So I hear my son asking these amazing questions, and so grateful that he has educators at a school that can have these conversations with him. But I also feel that it's our responsibility to kind of step up to these positions, so my son's children will not have to have these conversations again.

GILGER: All right. That is Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffmann, Arizona Education Association vice president Marisol Garcia and Save Our Schools Arizona communications director Dawn Penich-Thacker. Thank you all for coming in.

GROUP: Thank you.

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