Megan Marples/Cronkite News Piñon High School science teacher James Gustafson teaches virtually from his empty classroom.
Megan Marples/Cronkite News

Critics of the new legislation say, if passed, it would force teachers to give a “both sides” view of historical events like slavery and the Holocaust.

Educators across Arizona are speaking out after the state Legislature advanced a bill that would fine teachers up to $5,000 for discussing “controversial issues” in the classroom. 

The move comes as teachers and parents are grappling with how to discuss issues of race, diversity, and equity in school, after a year when organizations across the country have undergone a reckoning over similar issues. 

An amendment introduced by Rep. Michelle Udall (R-Mesa) to Senate Bill 1532 would prohibit schools from discussing “controversial issues,” although it does not explicitly define what issues could be seen as controversial.

The bill would prohibit any instruction that implies that anyone is “inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously” or that would make an individual feel “discomfort, guilt anguish or any other form of psychological distress because of the individual’s race, ethnicity or sex.” 

If passed, the law would allow the Attorney General’s Office or the county attorney to fine teachers, or anyone else who violates these provisions, for up to $5,000.

Udall said that there had been increased instances of teachers taking “political advocacy into the classroom” and presenting “biased viewpoints” as fact.

“Propaganda and one-sided political ideology should have no place in our classrooms,” Udall said on the floor of the Arizona House of Representatives Wednesday. “Biased, unbalanced teaching hurts children. Blaming children for something they didn’t do hurts children, and it’s not fair.”

But educators and Democratic lawmakers raised concerns that the bill’s language was ambiguous, vague and would require teachers to provide a “both sides” view of historical events, like slavery or the Holocaust.

The bill’s language would require teachers to present controversial issues from “diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.”

House Minority Leader Rep. Reginald Bolding (D-Laveen) said Wednesday that issues like slavery and the civil rights movement were considered controversial at the time. A 1968 Harris poll found that Martin Luther King Jr., who is widely heralded today as the seminal leader of the American civil rights movement, had a public disapproval rating of nearly 75% at the time of his death.

“The truth can be uncomfortable for some to hear. The civil rights movement was uncomfortable,” Bolding said. “Now we’re making it a law that anyone who is made uncomfortable by our country’s complicated history, and the divisions and systemic inequality that prevents us from becoming that more perfect union today can shut down that discussion.”

But Udall said the bill, which was advanced along party lines Wednesday, does not stop schools from teaching about racism or its impacts on society. The bill’s language carves out exceptions for “accurate portrayals of historical events, lessons on recognizing and reporting abuse and sex education.” 

“Human rights abuses—such as slavery, such as the Trail of Tears, such as the Holocaust, such as any genocide—should not be taught from diverse and contending perspectives,” Udall said.

Arizona Schools Superintendent Kathy Hoffman called the amended bill ambiguous and vague. She warned that a fine for teachers who violated the bill’s language would likely be unconstitutional.

“To provide our students an education devoid of accurate history is to fail them,” Hoffman wrote in a statement Wednesday. “This amendment actively chills the ability of our educators to guide their students through processing some of the most difficult moments and issues in their communities.”

Bill ‘Assumes the Worst of Our Teachers’

SB 1532 was advanced during National Teacher Appreciation Week, a move that some educators and lawmakers highlighted as ironic. 

“In a week set to celebrate our teachers for the important work they do, why are we even hearing this bill that instead assumes the worst of our teachers?” Rep. Judy Schwiebert (D-Phoenix) said Wednesday.

“Happy Teacher Appreciation Week,” Bolding said. “The reality is the truth of this bill and the effect of this bill does not appreciate teachers.”

Hoffman also noted there was a precedent for this type of legislation in Arizona.

In 2019, the Legislature repealed “No Promo Homo,” a law that for decades prevented the state’s schools from educating students on HIV/AIDS if the lessons promoted a “homosexual lifestyle” or portrayed homosexuality as a “positive alternative” lifestyle.

Arizona Republicans also passed legislation in 2010 that targeted the Mexican American studies program in the Tucson Unified School District by threatening to cut the district’s funding, according to reporting from the Arizona Daily Star. In 2017, a federal judge ruled that the ban was racist and violated students’ constitutional rights.

“Republican leaders dragged our state through a costly, taxpayer-funded lawsuit that ultimately affirmed our educators’ right to free speech,” Hoffman wrote.

When asked about the ambiguity of the bill’s language, Udall said it should be obvious when controversial issues were pertinent to the class in question.

“If you’re teaching math, you probably don’t need to introduce controversial issues into your math class,” Udall said. “That’s not an essential learning objective of your math class.”

Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, called the amendment overly broad and said it would contribute to the shortage of teachers willing to work in Arizona schools.

Arizona is in the midst of a yearslong teacher shortage. The Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association found that 27% of teacher vacancies in Arizona went unfilled this year, while 47% of the vacancies were filled by teachers who do not meet the state’s standard certification requirements.

Save Our Schools Arizona, a grassroots coalition of parents, teachers, and education advocates, said the bill was “extreme” and a “blanket mandate” on what could be discussed in the classroom. 

“Teachers and school boards would literally be forced to call the Attorney General before creating lesson plans,” the organization wrote in a statement Thursday. 

Save Our Schools also said the bill was just “one of a host of teacher attack bills” being pushed by special interest groups across the country.

SB 1532 was advanced by House Republicans in a party-line vote Wednesday and will now go to the Senate for further action. If passed, it will then go to Gov. Doug Ducey, who can opt to sign the bill into law or veto it within five days of receiving it.

“History is not just about the what. It’s also about the why,” Bolding said Wednesday. “We should allow our teachers to teach…let’s keep the legislature out of micromanaging our teachers.”

Reach the reporter at lorraine@couriernewsroom.com or 480-243-4086.