By John Celock
A 28-year-old charter school leader could become the nation’s youngest statewide elected official if he wins his race to become Arizona’s education chief.
Republican Jonathan Gelbart, a former charter school development director for BASIS Charter Schools, is one of three Republicans – and two Democrats – opposing controversial Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas in next year’s election. Gelbart, a native Arizonan, is one of three twenty something candidates seeking statewide office in the United States next year.
“I saw a lot of untapped potential there. Education is such a prominent issue. It is the number one issue for voters right now,” Gelbart told The Celock Report. “The office has the potential to be a symbolic leader for the schools and being a prominent figure in suggesting new ideas to the Legislature. Being a bridge from the schools to the Leg and the governor’s office.”
Gelbart, a Stanford University alumnus, left his job at BASIS earlier this year to start campaigning fulltime for schools superintendent, traveling regularly across the state in order to build name recognition. He joins a GOP field that includes Douglas, former U.S. Rep. Frank Riggs and Maricopa Community Colleges board member Tracy Livingston. On the Democratic side Tempe Councilman David Schapira, a former state Senate minority leader, and teacher Kathy Hoffman have entered the race.
Gelbart told The Celock Report that he is looking to bring more flexibility and innovation to Arizona’s public schools and said that he wants to break down barriers between the state’s charter schools and public schools. He said that charter schools have been able to utilize innovation in teaching and learning, which he wants to see more of in the public schools.
“The successful charter schools like BASIS have done things that the districts can learn from,” he said. “I have talked about the Legislature passing a bill to allow districts to be more flexible and innovative like charter schools are able to do.”
Gelbart said that much of the practices utilized in the public school system are a century old and a new model needs to be developed. He noted that among the models of education he would like to change is to move away from students facing forward during lecture based lessons from teachers. He said he would like to see more interactive, project based and collaborative learning, along with allowing schools more flexibility to adopt practices that work locally.
Gelbart said one impediment to public schools being able to implement innovations that he said have worked in the charter school sector has been the regulations imposed by government.
“The book of regulations that they have to follow, state regulations and state Board of Education rules and federal regulations, it is more than 800 pages of regulations,” Gelbart said. “When you are spending so much time and money and compliance with these laws it is hard to try new things.”
Gelbart said that if elected he “wants to be an advocate for all kids” and said that he wants to focus on creating more communication between the charter and public school communities. He said he wants to sit down with both sides in order to increase communication and sharing of information on curriculum and teaching techniques in order to improve education statewide. He noted that he believes that he can get those in public education who oppose charter schools to meet with charter schools by focusing sessions on communication and non-ideological topics focused on ways the sectors can work together.
Gelbart said that he has long been interested in education policy and sought out ways to become involved in the issue after he returned to Arizona after graduating from Stanford with a bachelor’s degree in international relations and a master’s degree in civil engineering. Following a stint in finance, Gelbart was hired by BASIS, where he focused on the development of new campuses in Arizona and Texas, including working on real estate, finance, architecture, construction and marketing issues.
He said that as he observed Douglas’ turbulent tenure as schools chief he started talking to those involved in Arizona politics and education who encouraged him to enter the race.
Douglas, one of the nation’s most unpopular statewide elected officials, has been criticized by leaders of both parties for how she has led the state Department of Education, including frequent battles with Gov. Doug Ducey (R) and the state Board of Education. Among the issues she has been criticized for has been her strong support for school vouchers and lack of transparency in the department. This includes a 2015 audit about misallocation of federal education funds not coming to light until earlier this year.
Douglas won the 2014 election – where she defeated incumbent John Huppenthal in the GOP primary and Democrat David Garcia – on her opposition to the Common Core education standards.
Early in her tenure Douglas tried to fire two state Board of Education members, a move overturned by Ducey. Douglas then accused Ducey of violating the state constitution, of forming a “shadow group” to promote Common Core and of refusing to take her phone calls or meet with her. Douglas has also been locked in battles with state lawmakers who have tried to curb her powers and lawsuits with the state Board of Education over staffing decisions.
Douglas also was locked in a dispute with former state Board of Education President Greg Miller when she accused him in August 2015 of assault when he tried to take her microphone away during a state board meeting focused on Douglas’ decision to deny board employees access to state education department electronic files after the board moved its staff to another building because of Douglas. Miller denied touching Douglas and said he only touched her microphone. An Arizona Capitol Police investigation determined that Miller touched Douglas’ left wrist during the incident. Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery did not file assault charges against Miller in the case. Miller later resigned from the state Board of Education at Ducey’s request, citing his ongoing feud with Douglas.
Douglas, an accountant, former school board member and pottery instructor, faced a failed recall effort within months of taking office in 2015. A 2016 poll of her approval rating – the last reported – showed her with a statewide approval rating of 16 percent. .
Douglas’ turbulent tenure has prompted the competitive field to oppose her including Livingston, a teacher and the wife of a state legislator, Riggs, a former gubernatorial candidate and congressional education subcommittee chairman, and Schapira, a teacher and local assistant schools superintendent, along with Gelbart.
Gelbart told The Celock Report that he is confident of his chances in the GOP primary and against Schapira, the likely Democratic nominee. He noted that he has been focused on a broad range of voters in the Republican primary, including outreach to mothers active in public education.
Gelbart stressed that he is focused on the superintendent’s office and not on using it as a stepping stone to higher office. He said his goal is to serve two terms as superintendent.
Riggs, a former three term congressman from California who has lost races for Arizona governor and U.S. Senate in California, has been focused on his background in education policy, including being president of a public school board and a charter school board and his work in Congress on education issues, including authoring a 1998 bill for charter school expansion. Livingston has been focused on her background as a teacher, local school board member and community college board member. She is focusing on more resources for teachers and allowing teachers more flexibility in the classroom.
Schapira, who lost a 2012 congressional bid, has promoted his work as a teacher and as assistant superintendent of the East Valley Institute of Technology, along with his work in the state Legislature, including on education committees. He is focused on teacher training, school funding and career education.
Gelbart, who turns 29 in several weeks, is not the only twenty-something seeking statewide office next year. Kansas State Treasurer Jake LaTurner (R), 29, was appointed to the office earlier this year by Gov. Sam Brownback (R) and will be seeking a full term next year. In Rhode Island, state Rep. Aaron Regunberg (D), 27, has announced plans to challenge Lt. Gov. Dan McKee (D) in the Democratic primary next year. In addition, several teenagers have announced bids for governor in Kansas and Vermont next year.
LaTurner is currently the youngest person to hold a statewide office in the country with Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles (R), 34, being the youngest person currently elected to statewide office in the country. North Carolina Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson (R), 34, is the nation’s youngest state schools chief. Johnson, who was elected last year, is one day older than Quarles.
Currently there are 14 statewide officials under the age of 40 in the country with Virginia Lt. Gov.-elect Justin Fairfax (D), 38, set to take office in January.
Gelbart said that while people are initially surprised by his age when they hear he is seeking statewide office, he talks about his experience in the education world and desire to listen to all stakeholders. He also noted that his age presents the Republican Party with the best opportunity to present a forward looking view in a race against the 37-year-old Schapira.
He stressed that his travels around the state are part of his way to assure voters that he is the best candidate for schools chief.
“People are initially surprised,” Gelbart said when people hear he is 28. “I share my credentials with them and start talking about what I want to do with the office. People realize that I know what I am doing. That is why outreach is a critical part of this campaign. Age is just a number and it is about experience. I have more experience than Diane Douglas has.”
Statewide Officeholders Under 40
Kansas Treasurer Jake LaTurner (R), 29, (Appointed to Fill Vacancy)
Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles (R), 34
North Carolina Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson (R), 34
North Dakota Tax Commissioner Ryan Rauschenberger (R), 34
Rhode Island Treasurer Seth Magaziner (D), 34
Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway (D), 35, (Appointed to Fill Vacancy)
Iowa Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg (R), 35, (Appointed to Fill Vacancy)
North Dakota Insurance Commissioner Jon Godfried (R), 35
West Virginia Auditor J.B. McCluskey (R), 35
Kentucky Treasurer Allison Ball (R), 36
Washington Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib (D), 36
Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley (R), 37
North Dakota Auditor Josh Gallion (R), 38
Virginia Lt. Gov.-elect Justin Fairfax (D), 38
Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt (R), 39