Arizona measure limiting school instruction about race is revived, awaits final word from Senate

Mary Jo Pitzl
Arizona Republic
Arizona state Rep. John Kavanagh

Arizona lawmakers are nearing a final vote on legislation restricting how teachers can discuss issues involving race or ethnicity in school classrooms, with $5,000 daily fines and loss of teaching credentials as punishment for any violation.

The legislation is in line with efforts in other statehouses to stop what some Republicans view as classroom efforts that portray certain races or ethnic groups as superior to others.

Democrats call it a politically driven push to demonize schools, and teachers in particular, in an election year.

Nationally, and locally, proponents have said they are working to curb critical race theory, a university-level construct that seeks to widen the lens on how American history is viewed. Senate Bill 1412 is Arizona's version of the anti-CRT wave.

The Arizona legislation is awaiting a final vote in the Senate after passing the House on an emotional vote along party lines late last month.

The bill, if signed into law, would bar Arizona teachers — from elementary school to state universities — from teaching lessons that would blame or judge anyone based on race or ethnicity.

Among other things, the bill prevents instruction that says one race or ethnic group is inherently morally or intellectually superior to another race or ethnic race, or that anyone's moral character is shaped by their race or ethnicity.

A teacher who is found to have violated the bill's restrictions could face disciplinary action, up to and including loss of their teaching license. Schools could face fines of up to $5,000. Students, parents of students and employees of the school could file complaints that instruction guidelines were violated.

Those provisions have prompted Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale and an important swing vote, to say he can't support the bill in its current form.

"I'm not comfortable with the county attorney and the attorney general getting involved with classroom discussions," Boyer said, echoing concerns he had last year that blocked similar legislation. "I don't want people who prosecute racketeering in our classrooms."

He said he's also troubled by the bill's expansion to university instruction, saying it raises academic freedom issues.

House Republicans, who voted unanimously for the bill, chafed at the implication that they were punishing teachers. 

'History is messy':Some teachers worry 'critical race theory bills' threaten AP classes

“Someone said let teachers teach,” Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said, adding he agrees. “But don’t let them spill vile, racist bile on our children.” 

Democrats condemned the measure as an attack on teachers and as a legal roadblock to teaching about some of America's darkest chapters. 

"On a day when we should be on our hands and knees to thank teachers for their sacrifice for our children, I am concerned this bill will have the effect of driving those valuable teachers from our classrooms," said Rep. Judy Schweibert, D-Phoenix.

She and other lawmakers noted the debate on the bill was happening as people across the nation grappled with the aftermath of the mass shooting at a grade school in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 19 children and two teachers. 

Democratic Rep. Jennifer Longdon speaks during the "March On for Voting Rights" rally at Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church in Phoenix on Aug. 28, 2021.

“I protest that we have spent most of today talking about everything but what most Arizonans want us to talk about: gun violence," said Rep. Jennifer Longdon, D-Phoenix, who was paralyzed by a shooting 18 years ago.

She pleaded with GOP leaders to resurrect bills addressing gun violence that were sidelined earlier this year.

Debate over what couldn't get taught

Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, has championed a version of this bill since last year. A teacher herself, she rebuffed complaints that the bill would prevent classroom instruction on sensitive topics.

"I'm pretty sure teachers know how to teach about race without placing blame on one race or another," she said.

In response to a question of whether a teacher could talk about the shooting earlier this month at a Buffalo, New York, supermarket that targeted Black shoppers, Udall said she didn't think it would be appropriate to teach that racism was the motive. Officials in New York have called the incident a racially-motivated crime. 

The bill provides specific exemptions for teaching about "historical moments, ideologies or instances of racial hatred or discrimination," including such events as slavery, Indian removal, the Holocaust or Japanese-American internment.

Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, speaks during debate of HB 2898, a K-12 education bill, during the House Appropriations Committee hearing at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix on May 25, 2021.

But critics said the bill's admonition to not assign any blame will result in teachers walking on eggshells.

Beth Lewis, a classroom teacher and president of the Save Our Schools organization, watched the debate from the House gallery. 

She fears the bill, if signed into law, would silence classroom discussions.

"I think you would lose a lot of context," she said, when asked how she would approach a discussion about the Buffalo massacre.

Lewis said she's heard from teachers who already are wary of broaching racially sensitive topics. For example, Lewis said she knows teachers who didn't bring up Black History month or the 9/11 anniversary for fear of facing complaints.

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Bill extends to some university courses

This was the latest prolonged debate over the bill. Udall's original version stalled when it reached the Senate, but was revived on a strike-everything amendment in the House.

The scope of the bill has also changed along its journey through the legislative process. It originally included "sex" along with race and ethnicity as one of the areas to which instructions could not assign and blame.

The bill was amended to include guest speakers in the orbit of teachers who would have to abide by the instruction guidelines. 

It now also extends to community college and university instruction, although limited to courses that are required to get a teaching degree.

Rep. Jennifer Jermaine, D-Chandler, lamented the bill's reach to higher education.

"Those are supposed to be places of great debate," she said. A member of the White Earth Nation, a tribe based in Minnesota. Jermaine said the bill could stifle knowledge of America's history.

"When we’re told that people cannot debate the values and morals of aspects of history, you really cannot talk about the history of our Native peoples without talking about racism, classism and child removal," she said.

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