Meet Our Candidates: David Schapira for Superintendent of Public Instruction

The time to fight back — and fight forward — for reproductive justice is fast approaching. The stakes are high in this year’s state election, with candidates for governor, secretary of state, attorney general, and other races on the ballot. The Arizona primary election will be held August 28, 2018, and voters need to be registered by July 30 to cast their ballots. Reproductive health has been under attack, both nationally and statewide, but Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona has endorsed candidates who put our health and our rights first. Get to know them now in our series of “Meet Our Candidates” interviews, and make your voice heard in 2018!

[D]avid Schapira is not a newcomer to education or politics in Arizona. A passionate educator and lifelong Arizonan, Mr. Schapira has advocated for public education as an elected official for more than a decade. He has served in a diverse array of roles — ranging from the Tempe Union Governing Board to the state Senate — and this November he will challenge Republican incumbent Diane Douglas for the office of superintendent of public instruction.

Sexual and reproductive health care education are critically important to the overall well-being of Arizona’s students. Our state’s current laws regarding sex education fail students by limiting access to medically accurate information, disingenuously promoting abstinence above other contraceptive methods, and actively perpetuating homophobic myths about HIV. Our next superintendent of public instruction should be someone who will help guide Arizona out of the Stone Age and into the modern world, where young women and men are empowered to make informed decisions about their bodies and their futures.

“If your goal is to reduce teen pregnancy and abortions, then the best way to accomplish those two goals is to have comprehensive sex ed.”

Mr. Schapira has a track record that speaks to his support for reforming Arizona’s outdated sexual education statutes. As both a member of the Senate and a member of Tempe Union’s Governing Board, he spearheaded campaigns to include LGBTQ students in anti-bullying and anti-discrimination protections. He has also volunteered for Planned Parenthood since childhood, and played an integral role in the 2014 overhaul of Tempe Union’s sex-ed curriculum.

If elected, Mr. Schapira says he will work to restore respect to the teaching profession, which he believes has eroded as a result of the Arizona Legislature’s animosity toward public education. His open support for the #RedForEd movement stands in stark contrast to that of his opponent — Diane Douglas — who on April 24 threatened punitive action against teachers who participate in a walkout. Douglas’ stance reflects her general disdain for traditional public education, which continues to be starved by her ongoing efforts to funnel public funds into private and charter schools.

Arizona’s next superintendent of public instruction should be someone who wholeheartedly believes in the value of public education and is committed to a brighter future for all children in our state. Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona is proud to endorse David Schapira as a candidate who fulfills those ideals. On April 12, Mr. Schapira spoke with us via telephone to discuss his campaign and his vision for education in Arizona.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and why you are running for office.

I am an Arizona native. My family has been here for four generations — my kids are the fourth generation of Schapiras to go to public school in Arizona. The education system in this state has given so much to my family that when I got out of college, I really wanted to give back. I started my career as a high school teacher, and I loved it. Like any job, there are difficulties to being a teacher, and there are great moments. But in this state, one of those difficulties became more than I was willing to accept, and that was the lack of support from the folks at our state Capitol.

I decided to get more politically engaged and started working on behalf of other candidates who were big supporters of public schools, and when I was old enough to run for the state Legislature, in 2006, I ran for the state House against a 10-year incumbent Republican in a Republican district. I went door-to-door across my community and talked about my vision for changing and improving things in our public school system, and for restoring respect for educators at the state Capitol. It was enough for me to win my election, but there are 90 members of the Legislature, the majority of whom truly do not respect our profession.

For six years I served in the Arizona Legislature, and for four of those six years I was the ranking member of the House Education Committee. After that point, I had enough of the folks at the Capitol. I then served on my school district governing board (Tempe Union High School District), because for me it’s about trying to have as much impact as possible on the public school system in this state. A lot of people run for school board as a springboard to run for the Legislature, but I did it the other way around. For me it wasn’t about being in an important or well-recognized office, it was about having as much positive impact on schools as I could.

Last year — about this time — I found out David Garcia was running for governor, and that we really didn’t have an experienced, viable candidate running for superintendent to challenge an awful incumbent. I just felt like it was time for me to head back to the Capitol in a different capacity. It’s been 24 years since we’ve had an educator lead our education system in Arizona, and I’m ready to see that long streak end.

On that note, I wanted to ask you about the #RedForEd movement in Arizona. What effect do you think it will have on Arizona, and how will you address it if elected to office?

I actually participated in five #RedForEd actions yesterday, and have attended many others in recent weeks. Educators are out there marching for the same reason that I decided to leave the classroom and get involved in trying to change our political system. They are fed up with lawmakers who give lip service to students, teachers, parents, and schools during election years, and then actively work to dismantle the public education system once they’re elected. I think — more so than ever before — that community members across this state have come to realize that the real motivation of the folks in power in Arizona is to dismantle the public schools. People are not willing to let that happen.

These protests are about preserving opportunities for the next generation of young people in this state. We have to ensure that kids in Arizona have the same chance my grandparents had going to public schools in Tucson, and that my parents had going to public schools in Phoenix, and that my siblings and I had in Arizona public schools. Preserving that path for opportunity is so critically important that people are marching in the streets, wearing red, and calling on their elected leaders to act. I’m very supportive of those calls for action, and I’ll continue to march alongside my fellow educators from now until we start to see the changes that we believe need to happen in this state.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently dismissed discrimination claims from transgender students, and Arizona’s current superintendent of public instruction, Diane Douglas, has done little to address bullying in Arizona schools, even though 65 percent of LGBTQ students in Arizona report daily harassment. How will you work to address bullying and harassment in public schools, not just against transgender students, but against LGBTQ students in general, and more broadly students who come from very diverse backgrounds?

This is an issue that I’ve worked on throughout my career. In fact, during my last year in the Legislature, one of the things that I really devoted my time to was trying to pass a comprehensive anti-bullying bill. There were a few key things that I was focused on.

First, I think schools need a consistent definition of what bullying is. Some schools have their definitions tailored so narrowly that students are able to get away with really mistreating each other. For example, a definition might say that an action must include physical contact to be considered bullying, or that an instance of bullying must include a demonstrable power imbalance in favor of the bully. I think we need to do away with some of these really narrow definitions.

Something else I’ve worked on, in terms of student discipline, is to move away from tactics like detention, suspension, and expulsion. Those tactics just don’t work. They discourage students who are being bullied from reporting acts of bullying because they’re afraid of retaliation. Instead of suspending and expelling students, what we need in our schools are more restorative practices, where bullies can come to understand the impacts their actions have on other students.

We need to facilitate an environment where students who are being bullied feel like they’re being heard and that their issues are being addressed. We also need bullies to understand how their actions affect others. We hear a lot about students who commit suicide as a result of bullying, and afterward the bully says something like, “If I had only known, I never would have done it,” or “I was just joking, I didn’t know it was getting to her.” Part of the problem is that, in our school system, we just are not good at helping people understand the consequences of their actions. And the consequences aren’t just detention; the consequences are the psychological impacts that bullying has on classmates.

My bill also included an expansion of the classification of groups that are bullied. In our anti-discrimination laws in Arizona, our legislators tend to omit LGBTQI folks. I really wanted to see them protected by law, along with other groups who are bullied for varying reasons.

Additionally, the bill included training requirements to prepare teachers and administrators to address instances of bullying that come up in schools. Learning how to identify and respond to such issues is a critical component that is not always taught in colleges of education. Although our colleges of education are getting better about it, a lot of anti-bullying training does not come until graduate-level programs, so educators who have not taken graduate-level courses are often unprepared when those situations arise. One component of anti-bullying legislation is ensuring that districts have sound policies relating to bullying, intimidation, and harassment, but another is making sure that teachers and educators have access to professional development so that we’re prepared to address issues when they come up.

Presumably some of these expansions that you’re talking about come with, simply, increased funding and resources for education in Arizona.

Absolutely. This can’t be an unfunded mandate — we have to provide the tools.

Note: Despite being approved by the Arizona Senate, Mr. Schapira’s anti-bullying bill ultimately died in the Republican-controlled House. It was killed in large part by lobbying efforts on the part of Cathi Herrod and the Center for Arizona Policy. Read a full account here.

Arizona is one of six states — along with Russia — that outlaw the positive portrayal (or “promotion”) of the “homosexual life-style” in HIV education. This archaic law marginalizes LGBTQ students, who are at increased risk for bullying and suicide. What would you do to support nondiscriminatory HIV, suicide, and sexual abuse prevention education?

It is disheartening that we live in a state where a law like that is still on the books. Basically, we have discrimination written into our state statutes, and that can be very difficult for school districts. I served on the Tempe Union Governing Board, and while I was there we worked on some really critical issues to serve our students. During my time on the board, we went through every single policy in our district — which took a few months to do — and one of the policies that I had a lot of input on and pushed really hard to change was our discrimination policy. We actually added sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression to our discrimination prohibitions in our district policy, and we were one of the first districts in the state to include that language. I’m very proud of that.

I am also proud of the work I did with a couple of my colleagues on the district board to pass a comprehensive, medically accurate, age-appropriate sex education program for the district. We had a ton of opposition. I was the only Democrat on the governing board at the time. Even though it’s a nonpartisan office, the Republicans on the board were getting a lot of pressure from local conservative groups not to amend our sex-ed policy and implement a comprehensive, medically accurate, age-appropriate program. We worked hard over about a year to repeal the old policy and adopt a new program that met those criteria, and we had a lot of discussions about that “promotion of a homosexual lifestyle” statute. We had to be very careful to walk the line imposed by the statute, and it was difficult.

There is another section of the statute related to sex education that essentially says if you teach students about abortion, you must state that “childbirth and adoption [are] preferred options to elective abortion.” So there are a lot of stringent guidelines in our statutes — some of them very ill-conceived — that we had to operate within the bounds of. Data shows that abstinence-only programs just don’t work. If your goal is to reduce teen pregnancy and abortions, then the best way to accomplish those two goals is to have comprehensive sex ed.

We had a very long, diligent process of trying to create data-driven policy that was best for our kids, while staying within the bounds of the law. We’re very fortunate that we were able to get that done in 2014. I think Tempe Union has perhaps the most comprehensive sex-ed program of any district in the state, and a lot of districts have recently modeled their policies after Tempe Union’s.

What do you hope to accomplish for Arizona’s K-12 students as superintendent of public instruction? What do you see as the most pressing issues facing our state?

The No. 1 goal has to be, without question, filling the 2,000 teacher vacancies in this state. It’s going to take three things to make that happen.

First, it’s going to take better pay. I can’t believe there is even a question — that we even need to debate — over whether or not that would address our issues. I served with a lot of very fiscally conservative legislators who considered themselves to be “economic experts,” and they are ignoring very clear indicators of market forces. The median teacher salary has gone down in the last 15 years, and we have 2,000 vacant teaching positions in this state — more than we’ve ever had. If that is not a clear indication that you’re not offering a high enough wage to bring people into the classroom and keep them there, I don’t know what else can convince them. If you’re an economist and you believe in market forces, it’s pretty obvious that teacher pay has to go up in this state if we’re going to fill those vacancies.

Second, we need to dramatically improve working conditions. In part, by filling teacher vacancies, we’ll improve working conditions through reducing class sizes. Another part of working conditions is student to counselor ratio. We have the highest student to counselor ratio in the country by far, with 924 students per counselor. That is about 164 more students than the state above us in the rankings, so we’re in last place by a large margin. By reducing that ratio, we can reduce the pressure on teachers from whom we’re already asking so much.

The third issue that I think we have to address in order to fill teacher vacancies is respect. Right now, having participated in five protests just yesterday, educators across the state feel completely disrespected by this governor, by the current superintendent of schools, and by the majority in the Legislature. In part, it is because it seems clear that those folks do not view education as a profession. This governor and the majority in the Legislature believe that anybody with a pulse should be able to teach. That was clear when they passed SB 1042 last year. So we need to restore respect to the profession, and that respect has to start at the top with our state’s elected leaders.

Ultimately, I really think that filling those teacher vacancies is the most critical issue. If I had to pick a second issue that I believe is critical, in addition to filling teacher vacancies, it would be equity of opportunity for students across the state. That will require equitable funding. Currently, we have a really disproportionate funding structure. Some districts can pass overrides and bonds, some can’t; some can raise tax-credit contributions, some can’t.

We also have equity issues for students living in poverty. Eighty percent of white kids have access to preschool, whereas only 50 percent of black and Latino kids do. Less than 30 percent of children living in poverty have access to preschool. Some students are starting school with two years of a head start on their classmates, so there is no wonder we have an achievement gap in our schools.

There are further equity issues when it comes to student discipline. African-American students in some schools are disciplined at 10 times the rate of white students, and Native American and Latino students are also disproportionately disciplined compared to their white classmates. I think we have to address those issues as well.

As educators we need to get away from the old idea of deficit-based thinking, and instead of looking for deficits within our students, we should be concentrating on their assets and using them as starting points for growth.

The last equity issue I’ll raise, which unfortunately I think is often ignored, is the fact that there are still a lot of educators out there who believe that females don’t have the same ability as their male classmates to perform well in science and math classes. It is deficit-based thinking, I believe, that has held back countless female students over generations in this country. We as educators have got to be better about equitable treatment for all of our students.

Why was it important for you to be endorsed by Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona?

David Schapira speaks at a Planned Parenthood event at the Capitol.

Planned Parenthood has always been a big part of my life. I started volunteering for Planned Parenthood when I was a kid, and I was a member of the Positive Force Players. We were an acting group in Arizona — made up primarily of high school students — who wrote, directed, and acted in skits and one-act plays that we performed across the state. The plays were about contraception, teen pregnancy, and things of that nature, but we also talked about date rape, abuse, drugs, and all kinds of other issues that teens confront. My brother and I were both in the Positive Force Players, and it was such an inspiring group to be a part of.

One of the things that really stands out from my childhood is riding the bus down 7th Street and walking from the bus stop to the Planned Parenthood building. Pretty consistently, there would be protesters out there screaming obscenities — and sometimes throwing rocks — at women going to get their health care. Sometimes they would harass pregnant women who were not going to get abortions, but just to get well-checks. That experience taught me at a young age that issues that should not be political can be easily politicized and used to drive wedges between us. It really encouraged me to get involved and protect the rights of women to have access to health care, and the rights of people to make their own health care decisions. Planned Parenthood is an organization that does incredible work, and it’s been an honor for me to be involved in Planned Parenthood since I was a kid.

To learn more about David Schapira, visit his website. You can also follow him on Facebook or Twitter. You can contact us if you’d like to volunteer for an endorsed candidate.