KINGMAN - At first glance, Diane Douglas could be anyone's grandma.
Soft-spoken and motherly, her lap seems to offer an unspoken invitation for children to climb into it and listen to a soothing story. Her smile is quick and warm, and she leans forward eagerly to answer questions about her "We are Listening" statewide tour, which kicked off Thursday in Kingman.
It's not an image many have seen yet of Douglas, who was elected as Arizona superintendent of public instruction last year and took office in January. Words such as inaccessible, inexperienced, cold and vindictive have been used to describe the little-known official who has taken over the reins of the Arizona Department of Education.
But to Douglas, nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, she just became a grandma to her daughter's son, who was born Dec. 27. And not only is she committed to a quality education for the infant as he grows up, she wants the same for the other children - and grandchildren - who inhabit the state.
"While I got into the race on a theoretical basis, now that I'm a grandmother, it's very important to me to make sure my grandson has the very best," said Douglas. "He deserves it, but I want it for all our kids, too, and our grandchildren. I love our country and think we have the greatest nation on God's green earth.
"I think we are incredibly blessed to be Americans and I think our children and our grandchildren are entitled to that heritage. But I see it slipping away. And I think a lot of it is in our education and that we're not passing down to our children the understanding they should have."
Douglas, a tea party Republican who lives in Sun City West, has been actively involved in education since she, her husband and 3-year-old daughter moved to Glendale from New Jersey in 1990. Douglas said they chose to move to Arizona to raise and educate their daughter, now a successful assistant to a company president.
As the child grew, Douglas served on school site councils and with Parent Teacher Association groups, even volunteering throughout high school, much to her daughter's chagrin. After the teenager graduated, Douglas ran for the Peoria School Board and served eight years, including two as president. She has no other political experience.
During that time, she studied educational issues in Arizona on her own, and was alarmed that the Arizona State Board of Education voted in 2013 to implement Common Core, a controversial national educational system. Its standards were created by a consortium of experts from 46 states, including Arizona, to toughen up standards for math, English and writing.
Douglas opposes Common Core because she believes it represents a federal takeover of Arizona's education system. She ran on a platform opposing Common Core and has supported legislative bills that would repeal it and allow the state to create a menu of nationally recognized statewide tests. But in March the state Senate killed a bill that would have repealed Arizona's version of Common Core after Gov. Doug Ducey said it wasn't necessary.
"I don't believe, and some argue differently, that the community was given the input they deserved or were entitled to receive when the state board of education made this radical change to our state's education system," said Douglas. "I can't change what happened in the past, but now we've got some practical experience with it and parents have seen how it's impacting their children and school."
Douglas said the most important things Arizonans can do include protecting the country's sovereignty at the borders, maintain the way of life created by the Founding Fathers, and educate children so they realize the blessings they have of freedom, prosperity and the ability to create their own future as they define it.
Although some disagree, Douglas said she believes the state is at the forefront of education already, even though some people in Arizona like to beat themselves up and tell everyone in the nation how terrible the education system is now. What has happened, said Douglas, is that the state took over the education duties and parents let it happen.
"I believe to the depth of my being that God gives children to parents, and it's the school's job to teach the children and the parents' responsibility to make sure the children are well-educated," said Douglas. "They're two different things and they work hand in hand.
"We need to help parents see and accept their responsibility. The state told them it didn't need them - just trust us, bring the children to school and we will take care of them and teach them everything they need. It's kind of a two-edged sword, though. The state asked for control and the parents gave it. And now (parents) want it back."
The simplistic, homey approach offered by Douglas hasn't been everyone's cup of tea, though. A recall effort that began after the November general election with a website and Facebook page has gathered some steam with its battle cry of "Diane Douglas is not fit to lead as the Superintendent of Public Instruction in Arizona."
Almost overnight, the Facebook page had 1,000 likes. As Douglas generated controversy by attempting to fire two staff members of the State Board of Education and then sparring with Gov. Doug Ducey when he overruled her, that number climbed to more than 11,000. Douglas said she doesn't worry about the effort and is focused on doing her job.
"This is what I want to do, and maybe that's why it makes some people nervous," said Douglas. "I don't want to be the secretary of state. I don't want to be the governor. This is my dream job and I'm thankful to be doing it. When you're not worried about what's coming next in your career, then you don't have to be worried about how people think you do the job. You just do your best."
The trick to getting through the rough times is to remain kind to others and focus on the children and their needs, Douglas said. There can be open discussion, but there's no need to get nasty and call each other names. Heated discourse is acceptable, she said, as long as it remains civil.
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