Republican lawmakers unanimously passed the restrictive education law while ignoring proposals that would properly fund Arizona schools.
An Arizona ban on material designated as “sexually explicit” in public schools took effect last month, leaving school districts across the state unsure about what content is now banned under the new law, and what material would be considered exempt.
Many teachers, administrators, and public school advocates have been vocal in their opposition to the new law, claiming that it specifically targets books with characters of color, books with LGBTQ+ themes, and books whose authors are people of color and/or LGBTQ+.
What It Does
HB 2495, signed into law by Gov. Ducey on July 6, bars “sexually explicit” content from public school classrooms in any medium, including text, audio, and visual. The bill has exemptions for certain content if the parent of a student gives the school explicit, written permission to use material that would otherwise be banned. Republican legislators passed HB 2495 unanimously, with Rep. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, sponsoring the bill.
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“This bill is about nothing more than protecting the innocence of Arizona children from sexually explicit materials,” Hoffman said back in March during a debate on the House floor.
Laws Targeting Public Education
HB 2495 comes during a contentious midterm election year when several other bills attacking public schools in some capacity have also been passed. Last month, HB 2853—which expands the state’s universal school voucher program,—went into effect, after public school advocates failed to garner enough signatures to have the bill referred to the 2024 ballot.
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During the most recent legislative session, Republicans passed HCR 2001, a bill designed to block the teaching of critical race theory in Arizona public schools—even though the academic concept is not currently taught in the state.
There has also been no word on whether or not Ducey will live up to his promise and call a special legislative session to raise the aggregate expenditure limit, a spending cap that essentially limits how much school districts are allowed to spend. Democrats are worried that if a special session is not called, school districts will be forced to cut budgets and lay off teachers.
School districts have been frantically trying to figure out how to implement the new book ban. Due to the vagueness of the law, it is unclear exactly how districts will choose to ban certain books and other forms of media that may be in violation of HB 2495.
Public school advocates say they are worried that the bill will have a “chilling effect” on public school educators because of the lack of guidance in its application. Analise Ortiz, a candidate for the Arizona House of Representatives, says the bill will overburden teachers, school staff, and librarians and force them to alter their curriculum—and noted the specific impact it will have on LGBTQ+ students and students of color.
“As kids are growing into their adolescent years, it’s important to see themselves represented in literature,” Ortiz told The Copper Courier. Ortiz also said that there were serious First Amendment implications with the ban, and that schools would be forced to wade into “dangerous territory” when the new law requires books on racism and LGBTQ+ content to be banned from classrooms.
Part of a Larger Effort
Educators and experts, including Jeanne Casteen from Secular Arizona, argue that the bill is one of a series of Arizona laws that are a “coordinated effort” to attack public education and pave the way for the privatization of public education in the state.
“It’s really not about prioritizing education, critical thinking, and the learning environment. It’s about removing certain voices and being able to control public schools, while at the same time fully funding private schools. It’s essentially state sanctioned discrimination and indoctrination of our students. So while we’re not allowed to teach certain things now in our public schools, we have absolutely no idea what’s being taught at the private schools that are now getting public money,” Casteen said, alluding to the expansion of the ESA program that Gov. Ducey signed into law over the summer.
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During an interview with the Copper Courier, Casteen, who has previously served as a school board member and is currently running to represent Phoenix in the state Senate, emphasized that the ban will impact educators and their ability to teach from their curriculum, as well as on students who come from underprivileged backgrounds. Casteen also pointed to a growing teacher shortage in the state and stated that bills such as HB 2495 only exacerbate the problem.
“The teacher retention crisis is real and it’s affecting our most vulnerable students, the ones that live in the poorest zip codes because those are the hardest schools to be able to hire and retain teachers. And now we’re going to take that money out of those classrooms in addition to not being able to teach them the things that they deserve to be able to be exposed to. It’s tragic.”
A National Trend
Arizona has joined 32 other states that have enacted book bans of some variation. According to PEN America, a 501(c)(3) organization whose mission is to protect free expression in literature, Texas leads the country in both the number of actual bans and the number of districts that have enacted bans of some sort. Pennsylvania and Florida come in second and third place. In total, there are bans in 138 school districts across the country.
PEN America’s Index of Book Bans found over 2,500 instances of individual books being banned. In a separate report, PEN America also highlighted the most common types of books that are being banned across the country. LGBTQ+-themed books made up 41% of banned content from July 1, 2021, to July 31st, 2022. Books that feature the protagonist as a person of color followed close behind at 40%, and books that had titles with themes of race and racism constituted 21% of bans, all within that same timeframe.
The most commonly banned books included Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, and This Book Is Gay by Juno Dawson.