A mistrust of Arizona's public schools runs through many of Legislature's education bills

One bill moving through the Arizona Legislature would require teachers to post any curriculum about race, gender, ethnicity or diversity online three days before teaching to students. Another would let parents review every book in the library. And multiple proposals would stop educators from teaching any material that “casts blame” based on race or ethnicity.

And that’s on top of a dragged-out debate before lawmakers raised the school funding limit to allow district schools to spend the money lawmakers approved last June, and the biggest legislative push to expand school vouchers in four years.

What do these Republican-sponsored bills have in common? Suspicion, if not outright anger, at Arizona’s public schools.

"There are schools that are still preventing transparency," said Sen. Tyler Pace, R-Mesa, at an Education Committee hearing this month. "If you don't think there (are) ... you have not gotten out and you have not listened to what's going on."

Public school advocates see the rash of bills as evidence of a broader divide around schools and what their future should look like.

“There is a fundamental distrust between many members of the majority caucus and how public schools are run and how they interact with parents,” said Dick Foreman, president of the Arizona Business and Education Coalition and a longtime Phoenix-area school board member.

He wants to see a conversation about school achievement and stopping the teacher shortage, not more bureaucratic rules.

Two years into the pandemic, there is a sharp divide on the conversation about what schools in Arizona need and what many families are asking of schools.

Members of the Arizona Education Association hold signs during a rally on Feb. 21, 2022, at the Arizona Capitol.

On the one hand, working-class families of color, many of whom were on the frontlines of COVID-19, had their lives upended by school closures and saw students academically fall behind have been vocal in calls for more representative curriculum and extra support. Those conversations tapped into a long-time effort to increase diversity and equity efforts at the school level.

"As a parent, I would like to see a clear plan on recruiting and retaining qualified teachers statewide," said Raquel Mamani, the parent of eighth-grade twins in the Madison School District and a substitute teacher. "I would like to see bills introduced that talk about better funding for our schools."

Meanwhile, conservative parents opposed to COVID-19 mitigation measures and critical of open discussions in schools around race and history have protested at school board meetings since last spring, tapping into a national movement of conservatives.

“We have great teachers, but we also have people who want to change our children into social activists,” said Scottsdale parent Barbara Jennings, during a committee hearing on an effort to change the state’s Constitution to prohibit the teaching of so-called "critical race theory." “I just want them to stick to teaching math, real history.”

However, only one of those political projects is driving legislation.

And Arizona isn’t alone.

A nationwide trend

Parental control bills in particular are moving through legislatures from Kansas to Wisconsin to Oregon, part of a national Republican strategy to focus on school issues that have been particularly divisive since COVID-19 and the 2020 protests against racial injustice.

And they come after years of copycat legislation on school vouchers, as well as anti-LGBTQ and sex education bills in Arizona and other GOP-led states.

Arizona in particular has passed a particularly high amount of model legislation. A 2019 investigation by The Arizona Republic, USA TODAY and the Center for Public Integrity found Arizona passed more than 400 bills based on model legislation from 2010 to 2018, one of the highest rates in the nation during that period.

This year, legislation has focused on parental access to the classroom and what is being taught, echoing efforts in other states.

The language in the bills, however, is being drafted with the support of conservative think tanks like the Goldwater Institute and the Center for Arizona Policy.

Cathi Herrod, president of the Center for Arizona Policy, said she’s seen more bills that would fall under the parental control effort introduced this session.

The nonprofit, whose goals are to defend the values of marriage, family and religious freedom, is advocating for a bill that would require schools to get parental approval for any school surveys about sex or gender.

“We have heard a variety of concerns from parents (about) children surveyed, basically asked invasive questions about their family lives,” Herrod said.

While Herrod stopped short of saying the organization drafted the bill, it was “involved” in its creation, she said.

The Goldwater Institute estimates around 20 states have introduced bills that would require schools to post curriculum online in some form.

“This notion of putting a list of materials being used in the classroom online is something that we had begun working on a couple of years ago,” said Matt Beienburg, education policy director.

The push for more parental voice, Beienburg says, is spurred in part by parents who want more say in what schools are teaching students, particularly those concerned schools are teaching “critical race theory.”

Critical race theory is an academic, theoretical concept about the impact of racism on society. It is not taught at the K-12 level, but conservatives have popularized the term as a catch-all phrase to describe school equity programs, teaching about systemic racism and examinations of difficult historical realities.

The proposal to add a ban on critical race theory to the Arizona Constitution, for example, describes CRT as promoting resentment and discrimination based on the color of a person's skin.

Members of the Arizona Education Association march to the Senate building during a rally on Feb. 21, 2022, at the Arizona Capitol.

The view from the Legislature

As legislators weighed bills, they discussed where and how it was appropriate for teachers to influence students, raising concerns about the undue influence of educators. Those doubts, teacher advocates say, amount to ongoing mistrust of educators.

Rep. Steve Kaiser, R-Scottsdale, is the sponsor of House Bill 2161, which would penalize any school employee who withholds any information from parents that is relevant to the physical, emotional or mental health of their child. Parents who feel wronged would be able to sue.

Kaiser said the bill is designed to encourage dialogue between parents and teachers. Communication is often poor, he told fellow lawmakers last month when explaining the bill.

“This is a huge problem,” he said.

School board meetings in recent months have been marked by “huge passions” from parents who feel they can’t get medical and educational information about their children. Surveys are distributed without parental notification, he said.

A parent of three boys in a charter school, Kaiser said he would expect the school to call him if one of his children was in distress and having a really bad day. He said he’d be “heartbroken” if a teacher stepped in where parents need to be.

“Their job is to teach my child reading, writing and math,” he said. “Their job is not to console my son.”

During a recent committee hearing about the bill to amend the Constitution, Rep. Teresa Martinez, R-Maricopa, said she knows teachers love their students.

“But they do not belong to them, and they should not be forcing their thoughts, their ideas, their beliefs onto their children,” she said.

Some legislators, even as they acknowledged a divide between parents and educators, rejected the piecemeal efforts to give parents more access and said change needs to come from the top.

Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, who resurrected a bill that would ensure parents and concerned citizens can gather on campus outside of classroom hours, said the only way to protect the interests of children was to elect school board members who represent the views of parents. Her original bill, which would have made school board elections partisan, died this session.

“You have to get people in there who reflect your value system,” she said.

Speaking during a Senate debate on the school spending cap Monday, Ugenti-Rita called school officials and teachers "educational terrorists" for continuing to demand more funding while instituting COVID-19 protocols that have led to school shutdowns and bothersome isolation policies.

Few Arizona schools have shut down this school year, with many remaining open with a skeletal staff despite high COVID-19 case counts, most recently during the omicron surge.

Democratic legislators have taken a more conciliatory tone to the push-and-pull of figuring out the right way to teach complicated topics and in some cases directly warned some bills would harm educators' efforts to teach.

“Teachers are going to make mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes,” said Rep. Lorenzo Sierra, D-Cashion, in response to concerns about educators teaching content that upsets parents.

Sierra suggested concerned parents should speak directly to school leaders and if necessary, get an apology from a teacher instead of passing broad legislation.

“Would that suffice or do we need this in the Constitution?” Sierra asked a parent who raised concern about a school activity.

Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix, an educator for 31 years, said her constituents were asking for more school funding, not posting curriculum online or reviewing library books.

"I think that there already is a great deal of transparency," said Marsh, who said legislators should remember teachers would only do such a difficult job because they care for children. "I think this is more to some extent about political control of our classrooms."

Rep. Daniel Hernandez, D-Tucson, said parents are frustrated by the changing rules around classroom attendance and are seeking some stability.

“We’ve seen a lot of people who’ve gotten a lot of mixed messages: Schools are closed, schools are online,” said Hernandez, a former Sunnyside Unified School District board member in Tucson.

They don’t feel included in school decisions, from whether classes will be online to whether their local school will stay open this year because of the constitutional spending cap.

While he is sympathetic to parents, Hernandez criticized fellow lawmakers for playing on that sense of frustration, saying the slate of parental-control bills is driven by politics.

“They’re weaponizing kids and parents,” Hernandez said of GOP lawmakers.

Hernandez said most of the individual complaints he heard from parents testifying to lawmakers were resolved by talking to their children's teachers. Phone calls, emails and conversations are much more effective at reducing confusion and frustration than mandates from the Legislature, he said.

What comes next?

Of the 10 bills that increase scrutiny on public schools, seven have passed out of their respective chamber, showing they have some traction.

Meanwhile, opponents say the focus on micromanaging schools is also likely to make one of Arizona’s biggest educational challenges — a chronic teacher shortage — worse.

Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association and a social studies teacher, said if the curriculum bill passed, it would only add more strain on teachers' day-to-day workload and push them to leave.

"People that are already stressed, they're already wondering if the state respects them, already wondering if their champions are still with them," he said at a committee hearing on the bill. "And this (bill) is what will push them a little bit further out the door, not wanting to come back."

Thomas said the measure is a sign of a newfound tension between parents and educators. It's "a fairly significant schism with their most powerful allies, which have always been parents," he said.

Christina Black, a Mesa parent who also testified at a committee hearing on the curriculum sharing bill, said she had seen her children's teachers pivot quickly when students became captivated by a topic, an option they may not have if the bill passed.

"I don't know when we stopped trusting our teachers," she said. "I have had the most incredible experiences that would not have been afforded to my children if they're having to put down every single book, YouTube video, every single thing down."

This legislative session could help herald what comes next for Arizona schools.

Foreman says he hopes the Legislature will move toward bills that get back to the key questions of learning: What is good for students, and what keeps qualified teachers in Arizona classrooms?

“These bills cannot be implemented at the school site,” said Foreman, referring to legislation that would allow parents to review library books or require teachers to post curriculum. “And none of it is related to, are kids getting a successful educational experience?”

Education-related bills that would increase scrutiny on public schools:

House Bill 2439

  • Would require a school governing board to review all books in its library and create a system for parental review of library books.
  • Passed the House 31-28-1 and has moved to the Senate for consideration.
  • Prime sponsor: Rep. Pingerelli, R-Peoria.

House Bill 2161

  • Would prohibit any school employees from withholding information about a child’s parents that is relevant to their physical or mental health and requires districts to obtain parental consent for any surveys about gender expression.
  • The bill is still under review by the House.
  • Prime sponsor: Rep. Steve Kaiser, R-Phoenix.

House Concurrent Resolution 2001

  • Would amend the Arizona Constitution, if approved by voters, to prohibit teaching subjects that discriminate based on race or ethnicity.
  • Passed the House 31-28-1 and has moved to the Senate for consideration.
  • Prime sponsor: Rep. Steve Kaiser, R-Phoenix.

Senate Bill 1036

  • Would fine a school district that fails to appropriately display the flag up to $1,000.
  • Passed the Senate 16-13-1 and has moved to the House for consideration.
  • Prime sponsor: Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff.

House Bill 2495

  • Prohibits public schools from using any sexually explicit learning material.
  • Passed the House 31-28-1 and has moved to the Senate for consideration.
  • Prime sponsor: Rep. Hoffman, R-Queen Creek.

House Bill 2112

  • Prohibits school employees from any publicly funded instruction that advocates blame or judgment based on race.
  • Passed the House 31-28-1 and has moved to the Senate for consideration.
  • Prime sponsor: Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa.

House Bill 2008

  • Would require high school social studies standards to include a comparative discussion of political ideologies that "conflict with the principles of freedom and democracy."
  • Passed the House 31-28-1 and has moved to the Senate for consideration.
  • Prime sponsor: Rep. Quang Nguyen, R-Prescott.

House Bill 2025

  • Would require schools to adopt policies for parents and prospective families to observe classrooms.
  • Passed the House 31-28-1 and has moved to the Senate for consideration.
  • Prime sponsor: Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa.

Senate Bill 1211

  • Would require teachers to post curriculum materials online; in the case of any topics regarding diversity, equity or race, material must be posted 72 hours before first use.
  • The bill is still under review by the Senate.
  • Prime sponsor: Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix.

Senate Bill 1617

  • Would prohibits a school district from ejecting or taking adverse action against parents or concerned citizens engaging in peaceful protest on school property after school hours.
  • The bill is still under review by the Senate
  • Prime sponsor: Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale.

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

Thank you for subscribing. This premium content is made possible because of your continued support of local journalism.