Arizona Rep. Mark Finchem couldn’t believe it when a parent in his district told him a math teacher was constantly criticizing President Trump in class.
And then there was the story of another parent who told Finchem about a 6-year-old who came home in tears because he had to wear a red shirt to support teachers in their #RedForEd movement and walkout.
The result: Arizona teachers who talk about their personal political or religious beliefs in the classroom could be fired under legislation proposed by Finchem.
House Bill 2002 would also restrict teachers from bringing “controversial issues” into the classroom or blaming one racial group for the “suffering or inequities” of another racial group.
“I’m sure that the vast majority of teachers don’t participate in promoting a political ideology,” Finchem told the Arizona Republic. “It only takes one or two people to give an entire profession a bad name.”
Finchem said teachers should focus more on helping children learn how to think, not teaching them what to think.
“If you step into a classroom with a Trump T-shirt, a Hillary T-shirt, a ‘Vote No on 126’ T-shirt, you’re engaging in political speech in the classroom,” Finchem added. “If there’s a political agenda behind it, leave it at home. Simple request.”
Finchem also disputed allegations that his legislation is only a conservative’s reaction to Arizona teachers walking out of class last year demanding higher pay.
“Parents and taxpayers have a right to expect that taxpayer resources will be spent on education, not political or ideological indoctrination,” the bill stated.
But Marisol Garcia, vice president of the Arizona Education Association, the state teachers’ union, said Finchem’s legislation is nothing but a “stunt.”
“It’s disappointing that a legislator would choose to do this at the beginning of the session,” she said.
The legislation would also require teachers to take a three-hour ethics training class every year.
Noah Karvelis, who organized the #RedForEd movement, said state lawmakers have more important topics to concern themselves with, such as higher pay for teachers.
“If we really want to get serious about what teachers need, they don’t need a three-hour training on the rules,” Karvelis said. “We understand the rules. What we need is the money to make our classrooms work.”
However, Finchem said his legislation was “bigger” than #RedForEd. He said it is a response to parents in his district who were “outraged” by teachers holding political discussions during class time.
He also said the number of calls from parents complaining about teachers bringing politics into their kids’ classrooms was “stunning.”
However, the Arizona Daily Star raised questions about Finchem’s motivation. The Daily Star reported the language of HB 2002 is similar to, and in some cases is taken word-for-word from, the Stop K-12 Indoctrination campaign of the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
The Arizona Republic reported the provision in HB 2002 forbidding teachers from blaming one racial group for the problems of another is reminiscent of the so-called ethnic studies ban, which was intended to end Mexican-American studies in Tucson schools. A federal judge found that law to be unconstitutional last year.
Critics of Finchem’s proposal said state law is already in place that forbids teachers from using the classroom or school district resources to influence elections.
Two Phoenix teachers were fined and disciplined in December for violating that statute. One of the teachers was the president of the district’s teachers’ union. The other was 2019 Arizona Teacher of the Year Kareem Neal.
Neal was punished by the district for hanging an #InvestInEd sign in his classroom. Neal, a special-education teacher, said his students were easily distracted so he hung signs up to cover portions of a window.
The other teacher was punished for discussing the #InvestInEd initiative in a speech to district employees.
Julie Brown, who filed the complaints against the two teachers has formed a group in her child’s school district aimed at stopping political discussions in classrooms. She said this new grassroots group has nothing to do with bashing #RedForEd.
“The idea is no matter what you believe, it has to stay out of the schools,” Brown stated.
But Rachel Johnson, who teaches in the Tucson, Ariz., Unified School District, said it’s impossible to keep controversial issues and politics out of the classroom. Johnson said she realizes that she is a government employee and needs to be careful what she says in front of students.
Even if the Arizona Legislature approves HB 2002 and teachers adhere to the legislation, Johnson said, you can’t keep the kids quiet. If teachers don’t bring up politics, they will, she argued.
“I teach 13-, 14-year-old kids,” Johnson said. “They aren’t stupid. They know what’s going on. They bring up issues.”