Tom Horne wants a crackdown on lenient discipline in schools

Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne knows that a crisis is coming if Arizona teachers keep leaving public schools. 

He thinks the best way to solve the shortage is to raise teacher pay — a solution that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle can get behind — and to strong-arm districts into implementing more forceful punishments to curb student misbehavior. 

Horne’s latter idea, however, is not one that has garnered bipartisan support. 



During his annual State of Education speech to the House Education Committee on Wednesday, Horne presented a list of wins from his past year in office and reminded lawmakers that teacher recruitment and retention was still a major issue in Arizona schools. 

Horne shared that, out of 60,000 public school teachers in the state, 8,000 are quitting each year and educator preparation programs, along with teachers returning to the field, are only replacing them at a rate of 4,700 annually. That means a loss of around 3,300 teachers every year. 

This trend leads to long-term substitute teachers leading classes for which they aren’t properly trained. Horne highlighted the particular importance of having skilled educators on hand to teach young children to read. 

“If we do nothing to reverse this trend, this could be a major catastrophe for our students and economy,” Horne said, adding that he’s heard complaints that students who graduate from Arizona high schools are not career or college ready. 

He added that, in a poll conducted by the Department of Education, 67% of Arizona teachers who left the profession last year did so because of low pay. But 61% said that a lack of support in dealing with student behavior and discipline was also a contributing factor. 

That is why Horne said he is backing a plan by the legislature’s Republican leadership to increase teacher pay by 10%. 

Arizona ranks 32nd in the nation for teacher pay, according to the National Education Association, with an average salary of $56,775 that is nearly $10,000 less than the national average. The median household income in Arizona is about $74,500, according to U.S. Census data.

While Democrats also support pay increases for teachers, they have criticized the GOP’s plan for leaving out support staff. 

But with a looming state budget deficit, Horne said this wasn’t the time for the state to fund increases to support staff, though he said he hopes schools can find the money themselves by becoming more efficient. 

As of last year, Arizona was next-to-last among the states when it comes to per-pupil school spending. 

In an effort to give teachers more support with student discipline, Horne said he proposed Senate Bill 1459 to its sponsor in the Senate, Republican John Kavanagh, of Fountain Hills. The bill already made its way through that chamber by a party-line vote of 16-13 on Feb. 26. 

It would require all public school districts to include a rubric for student discipline in their handbooks, not to dole out or fail to dole out punishments based on things like race, ethnicity or ancestry, and to report discipline information to the Department of Education annually. 

Districts would be required to report the total number of disciplinary referrals made by teachers each year and how many of those referrals resulted in the administration pursuing the disciplinary action recommended by the teacher. They would also have to report how many resulted in no disciplinary action. 

If the district does not implement disciplinary action for at least 75% of teacher referrals without a “reasonable justification,” the school would be notified that it did not adequately punish misbehaving students and could be subject to a reduction of their school letter grade the next year if they don’t make changes. 

If the district doesn’t hand out the adequate percentage of punishments in the next year, the Arizona Department of Education could reduce the school’s letter grade. 

Each year, the Department of Education is required to give letter grades from A-F to each public school in the state, based on student academic performance. 

Rep. Judy Schwiebert, a Phoenix Democrat and former teacher, said she’d consulted with multiple school leaders within her district about the bill and said that they were alarmed that the Legislature and Department of Education would interject themselves into the complicated matter of discipline that they believe is best dealt with at the local level. 

“I think we all agree that behavior is a problem for teachers,” she said. “We need to find a way to provide supports for teachers.”

She added that solutions should happen through collaboration among teachers, administrators, students and parents. 

“I would challenge you to come up with a collaborative instead of a punitive approach,” she said. 

Horne countered that “permissive school boards” — he singled out Phoenix Union High School District’s board — allow students to curse at teachers and tell teachers to use social emotional learning to deal with it. Horne’s bill would ban the use of any discipline that involves social emotional learning and restorative justice. 

“There are outrageous things happening in our schools and we’re suffering,” Horne said. 

He added that Arizona’s academic scores are poor because of it, and the future of the state’s economy is in jeopardy. 

“”Oh, you poor darling, it’s not your fault,’” Horne said, mimicking a district leader that uses social emotional learning to deal with negative behaviors. “‘You come from a poor background so you’re misbehaving because of society.’ When they take that approach, you have anarchy in your classrooms. Kids do not learn and teachers leave the profession.”

Democratic Rep. Laura Terech, of Scottsdale, asked Horne how lowering a school’s letter grade would help support teachers. Horne answered that it would put political pressure on the members of the school board to enforce harsher punishments to get classrooms under control and make teaching easier. 

Rep. Nancy Gutierrez, D-Tucson and a high school teacher, said she was worried that the term “disciplinary action” was not defined in the bill. If a student in her classroom is being disrespectful, Gutierrez said she typically has a private conversation with that student, which usually resolves the issue. 

She wondered if that would count as disciplinary action or if the bill would incentivize teachers and administrators to give harsher punishments than were actually necessary. 

“I’m getting complaints from teachers who aren’t being supported,” Horne said. “They came into the profession to teach, not to be policemen.”

Gutierrez countered that there are many reasons a student might come to school and have a behavioral outburst, and that to deal with it, school staff need to get to the root of the problem. Having well-trained teachers who have experience in dealing with behavioral issues was a better solution than Horne’s proposal, she said. 

Rep. Jennifer Pawlik, D-Chandler, added that some of the concerns of administrators in her district include that a teacher might refer a student for discipline without knowing all sides of the story, and it’s the administrators job to ensure they hear all sides and give the student due process. This bill could essentially punish administrators for deciding not to punish a student after obtaining more information about an incident and deciding that the teacher’s recommendation was unfair. 

Pawlik said that the Department of Education and Legislature should work to better equip teachers to deal with students who have behavioral issues instead of punishing them. Solutions could include hiring more aides, decreasing class size and supplying experienced mentors to newer teachers. 

There are 62 people and organizations officially registered in favor of the bill, while 385 are signed in against it, including the Arizona Association of County School Superintendents, the Arizona Charter Schools Association, the Arizona School Boards Association and Arizona School Administrators.

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