A bill addresses political speech and the classroom

By Jordan Williams/Arizona Sonora News Capitol Bureau

PHOENIX — The Senate Appropriations committee passed House Bill 2032, which would prohibit schools from speech or curricula during school time “with the intent of influencing or changing a student’s political ideology or religious beliefs.”

Rep. Kelly Townsend (R-16) told the committee that even though many teachers in the state do not do that, there were “incidents enough” in which she said this type of legislation was needed.

For example, she noted a specific incident in the Chandler Unified School District where a teacher had on his walls several examples of what she called anti-American sentiment, along with cartoons critical of President Trump around his classroom.

The substitute teacher who brought it to the attention of the administration found that nothing happened to the teacher, she said. She did not name the specific school in the district, the teacher, or specifically what the teacher had in the classroom. 

The current contents of HB 2032 was on another bill that Townsend introduced, HB 2015. Originally the bill required charter schools to comply with open meeting laws. 

The House Elections committee, which Townsend chairs, passed a strike-everything amendment to the bill, which changed the content of the bill from charter schools to tabulating early voting ballots.

The bill, which the House of Representatives unanimously passed, stated early voting ballots cannot be tabulated until fourteen days before an election day, and outlined a process for candidate representatives to observe the process.

Current state law prohibits spending or using district or charter school resources “for the purposes of influencing the outcomes of elections.”  It also prevents an employee of a school district or charter school from giving students “written materials to influence the outcome of an election or to advocate support for or opposition to pending or proposed legislation.”

In the U.S. Supreme Court case Garcetti vs. Ceballos, the court ruled that public officials’ First Amendment protections First Amendment protections apply to a public official’s speech only in a private context rather than during the exercise of their duties.

The committee heard testimony from one teacher, Catherine Barret, a master’s teacher who supported the new bill because she felt it protected students from teachers’ bias, noting the “Red for Ed” movement, started by teachers last year to advocate for increases in teacher pay and funding for education.

“Politics do not belong in the classroom or educating our students,” Barret said.

The committee passed the strike-everything amendment on a party-line vote 6-3.

Sen. Lisa Otondo (D-04), who voted against the bill, called it an “attack” on public school teachers.

“What happened here last year did not have to do with party,” Otondo said of the Red for Ed movement. “It had to do with the state that did has not taken seriously the need for an increase in teachers’ salary, and holding teachers up to the level of respect they deserve.”

Otondo told the committee that passing this bill without solid proof of these incidents is not necessary, noting that in her time as a teacher at Crane Middle School in Yuma, there already were “very strict rules” about this.

“We were monitored all the time, we had people coming in to grade how we taught, what we taught — and we followed the curriculum that was set forth by the district,” Otondo said.

While Otondo conceded that there are “bad apples” in every profession, she noted that there were disciplinary measures when there was an incident requiring action. 

Sen. Heather Carter (R-15) supported the bill but noted many concerns she had about the language of the bill, such as what a “school day” is.

“During the lunch hour which would technically be during the school day, that’s where you can do your club events, and the teacher has to be sponsor of the club,” Carter said. “There are clubs that have a particular belief.”

 Townsend said the bill is about making sure students can get an education without any political bias.

“Our students deserve a non-biased, objective education,” Townsend said.

The Senate would now have to consider and pass the bill, and then the House would have to re-vote on it since an amendment was added in the Senate.


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