'Like it's Groundhog Day': The culture wars around Arizona education feel very familiar

Yana Kunichoff
Arizona Republic

When Dylan Lifshitz was growing up, he and his classmates had a lot of questions about their bodies and sexuality. He became the go-to expert because he had access to sex education through his congregation, while his peers relied on the internet.

Curtis Acosta was an educator in Tucson Unified School District’s now-defunct Mexican American studies program, which legislators banned in 2010 and a state court later ruled had been the target of racial discrimination. Acosta was among those that sued over the ban but, without being able to continue teaching the curriculum, he eventually left the classroom.

And Madison district parent Garrick McFadden has had long conversations with his daughter, who is biracial and in elementary school, about how her ancestors have both an immigration story and a Great Migration story, referring to the movement of African American people from the south to the north.

“The class gets a little bit more real history when my daughter presents,” said McFadden, who is Black.

As the Legislature weighs multiple bills that would outlaw the teaching of material that directs blame based on race, bars transgender athletes from participating in sports and creates ways for parents to review school library books, a new generation of Arizona students is going to school in the shadow of the culture wars.

The Arizona Legislature

“I feel like it’s Groundhog Day,” said University of Arizona professor Nolan Cabrera, an expert witness in the Tucson ethnic studies court case whose research found the Tucson district’s Mexican American studies program was strongly correlated with students passing test scores and higher graduation rates. “The stakes are extraordinarily high in the lives of students.”

Those who graduated under earlier iterations efforts to regulate what is taught in schools still grappling with the outcomes: how they marred their understanding of sex and gender, their comfort in education spaces and their hopes for the future of the state.

“It’s really troubling,” said Lifshitz, who has organized for gun control and mental health supports for students. “It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t make me want to stay in Arizona. But it also makes me want to stay because, like, somebody has to make sure this doesn’t keep happening.”

Echoes of the past

Many of the education-related bills moving through Arizona’s Legislature echo past bills, like the efforts to limit sex education, trans people’s access to school sports and sexually explicit materials in school. They also have similar roots: conservative groups like the Center for Arizona Policy and the Goldwater Institute that helped draft earlier legislation continue to be active today.

The COVID-19 pandemic sharpened new areas of attention: concerns about how curriculum decisions are made in local school districts.

Some conservative parents, galvanized by mask policies and other pandemic measures, have taken their protests to school board meetings. A rash of parental control bills, such as Senate Bill 1211, which expands how parents can view instructional material, or House Bill 2439, which would create a process for parents to review school library books, are part of a nationwide, Republican-led movement.

And the broad conversation around systemic racism in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd helped heighten focus on concerns about race and history. “Critical race theory,” an academic concept about the effects of racism on society that is not taught at the K-12 level but increasingly is used as a catch-all term for equity programs and teaching about systemic racism, echoes the legislative fight against Mexican American studies.

What’s changed in recent years, say experts, is how former President Donald Trump’s election gave a broad range of far-right ideas an increased platform — alongside a rise in extremism in the Republican Party in Arizona and the growth in disinformation on social media.

“The anti-CRT campaign is not new. It has a long legacy in the anti-civil rights movements” said Sergio Munoz, a legal policy expert at progressive media watchdog Media Matters. The right-wing conversation “used to be bifurcated: there were folks concerned through an academic perspective and a political perspective. What we’ve seen recently is the melding of the two in a new technological age.”

In 2010, Republican legislators introduced a law banning Mexican American studies in Tucson public schools. Then-state schools chief Tom Horne called for the move, which also was part of a broader effort to ban teachings that “promote resentment toward a race or class of people.”

"With respect to TUSD's MAS program, the evidence shows that concerns existed that the program was based on a divisive, separatist, politicized pedagogy that taught students to see themselves as exemplars of an oppressed ethnicity rather than as individuals with the opportunity to control their own destinies and achieve their own goals," state attorneys wrote in court filings arguing against the program.

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That language echoes this year’s bill to change Arizona’s Constitution that would, among other broad measures, restrict how public school employees can teach topics related to race and ethnicity that may cause discomfort or guilt and limit institutions that use affirmative action from receiving public money.

“After 160-some years, when are we going to get over the, ‘Poor me, I’ve been subjugated’ idea,” said Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction, speaking in favor of the bill. “I will tell you I was discriminated against legally by the United States government with affirmative action and not given the same opportunities.”

And Horne, the former state schools chief who led the fight against Mexican American studies, announced last year he would be running for school superintendent again, this time connecting “critical race theory” and ethnic studies.

Some legislators, as well as LGBTQ community advocates, meanwhile, worry that legislation on sexuality and gender harkens back to a 1991 law that made it illegal for public schools to provide HIV prevention intervention because of fears that it would promote homosexuality.

Introduced this session, House Bill 2495, in its initial language, prohibited public schools from sharing any sexually explicit learning material with students including the depiction of homosexuality. An amendment has since been proposed to remove the term homosexuality from the bill language and to allow material that is part of classical or historical American literature to be taught, but critics say it will still essentially act as a book ban.

"I was worried this was a repeat of the 'no promo homo' legislation that I fought against," said Rep. Daniel Hernandez, D-Tucson.

While he's glad the portion of the bill referring to homosexuality is gone, he still doesn't see a reason for the legislation, noting a law already prohibits minors from being shown pornography. "We need to focus on actually solving the problems in Arizona's public schools, not passing a bill that is purely a political game."

Other bills this session include Senate Bill 1138, which would prohibit gender reassignment surgery for minors and was later amended to specify that it referred to irreversible surgery; Senate Bill 1165, which would ban members of the "male sex" from participating in school sports designated for females, women or girls; and House Bill 2161, since modified, which would have required school district or charter school employees to disclose a student’s mental or physical health issues to parents.

The most frightening case for many Arizona activists is playing out right now in Texas, a state that considered dozens of anti-trans bills in recent years but was often slowed down by the activism of local parents. After legislation that would have criminalized medical care for transgender youth trying to align their bodies and gender identities didn’t pass, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a directive to investigate reports of "gender-transitioning procedures" as child abuse.

Arizona communities move ahead

Years after Tucson’s Mexican American program was banned, students and parents sued the state superintendent and members of the state education board. In 2017, a federal judge ruled in their favor: Arizona had violated students’ constitutional rights by attempting to shut down the program.

For Acosta, the former educator, the damage had been done. The experience of having his entire life’s work banned overnight, even as he knew it helped the student he taught, pushed him out of the classroom.

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“It’s like, ‘Go, we want you to dig a ditch.’ ‘Sure, I’ve got this great backhoe right here, I can take that ditch in a couple of minutes,’ ” Acosta said. “And they’re like, ‘No, here’s a spoon.’ ”

Since his time teaching in Tucson, Acosta has launched a consulting company whose work includes working with school districts and communities interested in incorporating culturally relevant curriculum or teaching ethnic studies, including in California, Washington and Minnesota.

The Tucson Unified School District dropped its Mexican American studies program in 2012, but by 2015 the superintendent told media the district had expanded its "culturally relevant" curriculum, according to the Associated Press. It now runs a Mexican American Student Services program to support students but, according to Acosta, who taught in the program, the district no longer specifically teaches the curriculum that elicited such controversy.

“We’ve been robbing almost a decade of youth (in Arizona) from the opportunity to have a similar reclamation of their academic identity,” he said. "The dismantling of our highly successful academic program had a chilling effect throughout the state that still remains today.”

The Tucson district said it offers support to students and families through its Mexican American Student Services program but did not address questions about Mexican American academic programs.

Meanwhile, Arizona parents say they have learned to find other communities or ways of finding the information they need but note the difficulty.

McFadden doesn’t rely on the school to teach his daughter history; he uses her family’s story to explain concepts of disinvestment and inequality that he says are key.

“I have a white wife. Her family came to Duluth, Minnesota, and became farmers. Their first generation here, they were able to own farmland,” said McFadden, an attorney and onetime legislative hopeful. “It took nine generations of McFaddens before the first McFadden was able to own anything.”

From protests to call-ins, LGBTQ community advocates say they see the rash of anti-trans bills as a response to a changing society.

“There’s a core group of people who feel that they’re losing influence or that society is moving forward in a pluralistic direction that they’re not happy with,” said Jeanne Woodbury, policy and communications director at Equality Arizona. “They create these laws as a way to kind of shore up against their own anxiety.”

Many of the bills that deal with LGBTQ and gender identity in this session have stalled, but Woodbury says it's important to understand how those efforts affect how people see parental rights, gender and the agency of young people.

“Even just running the bills give them some kind of victory in terms of how it shifts the conversation,” she said.

Instead of legislation that restricts trans students access to sports or students' certain reading materials, Woodbury would like legislation that affirms the agency and privacy of LGBTQ youth.

Lifshitz said he continues to be a resource for fellow students, using the sex education classes he received as a member of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix.

“I have friends and people coming to me sometimes, asking me about sex ed stuff that they never learned,” he said. “Because none of us got it in school.”

Reach the reporter at ykunichoff@arizonarepublic.com and follow her on Twitter @yanazure.