By Gloria Gomez/UA Don Bolles Fellow/AZ Mirror
PHOENIX — Republican legislators want voters to make it unconstitutional for Arizona public schools, colleges and universities to teach so-called “critical race theory,” a move that will come at the detriment of quality education, critics say.
The proposed constitutional amendment would capitalize on a nationwide GOP movement to demonize critical race theory — a high-level field of academic study about the ways in which racism has become embedded in various aspects of society — and turn it into a catchall term for various race-related teachings, including instruction on “white privilege” and “anti-racism” curriculum.
“We are saying that you cannot guilt a kid because of the color of their skin,” said Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Apache Junction.
House Concurrent Resolution 2001 is based on the false premise that critical race theory encourages white students to feel guilty for historical racism. The theory doesn’t assign blame to any one group, but rather analyzes how racism contributes to inequality, such as the way racist policies in previous generations may affect contemporary housing trends.
The legislation declares that critical race theory violates the Fourteenth Amendment and Civil Rights Act of 1964. It would ban schools from teaching that any racial group is inherently racist, or that individuals are to blame for the actions of members of their racial or ethnic group.
It also would prohibit schools from engaging in affirmative action policies that favor some applicants over others based on race or ethnicity beyond outreach and advertising campaigns — which is already banned in state law.
The measure had stalled in the Senate Education Committee, where it had failed to receive a hearing. But Rep. Steve Kaiser, a Phoenix Republican and the sponsor of HCR 2001, convinced Senate President Karen Fann to remove it from the Education Committee and instead assign it to the Appropriations Committee, where it was heard Tuesday.
Sen. Sean Bowie questioned whether it was a good idea to put such broad language into a ballot measure, given that voter-approved legislation is more difficult to revise. A similar proposal is working through the House, he said, that would statutorily ban critical race theory and would be much easier to deal with if problems arose. Constitutional amendments can only be approved by voters.
“If the voters do approve this, as they’ve approved other things in the past, it’s really hard to change it if there are unintended consequences,” he said.
Joe Cohn, lobbyist for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which advocates for free speech rights on college campuses, said the bill would restrict the strategies and resources teachers can use.
“No resources at all can be spent on any events or anything that promotes particular ideas. And that would include a prohibition on a faculty member organizing a speaking event, or presenting a research presentation,” he said.
A provision in the bill barring teachers from compelling students to promote statements or ideas that support different treatment of people based on race or ethnicity could also eliminate critical thinking assignments in which students take up “devil’s advocate” positions on abhorrent policies to learn how to identify, develop and dispute arguments.
But proponents said the constitutional amendment would protect students from harmful, discriminating lessons.
Shiry Sapir, a Republican running for superintendent of public instruction, claimed that racism has been revitalized by critical race theory. In a nod to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s questioning of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson last week, Sapir said she rejected the idea that any infants harbor grievances against others because of what occurred “centuries ago.”
“It is very dangerous and harmful to our children who have no say regarding the color of their skin, having to hear (critical race theory) inside the classroom,” she said.
Matt Beienburg, lobbyist for the Goldwater Institute, a libertarian think tank that has crusaded against anti-racism education in schools, said teaching critical race theory is unconstitutional.
“Ideologies such as critical race theory…reject the legal principles of treating individuals neutrally and equally without respect to race. Attempts are now being made to circumvent the constitutional language under the banners of antiracism, diversity, equity and inclusion and similarly benign sounding slogans that are being used to undermine the state’s constitutional guarantee of equal colorblind treatment for all,” he said.
Legislators were at odds over whether classroom discussions of race are beneficial to students or detrimental. Sen. Raquel Terán, D-Phoenix, said a quality education is incomplete without acknowledging the nation’s ugly past. She worried the bill’s broad language would lead to teachers cutting that content out of their lesson plans.
“Children deserve an honest and accurate education that enables them to learn from the mistakes of our past to help create a better future,” she said.
Leach blamed critical race theory for why public schools are hemorrhaging students, and said that while the country has a checkered past, there are ongoing efforts to remedy it.
“Parents (want) their kids to go to a place where they can learn,” he said, “Yes, there are spots in our history that are blemished. Some would even go so far — and maybe I would be included — (to say) that they are rotten. And as we see them, we take care of them. Granted, not soon enough, but we are a deliberative country.”
The committee approved the measure 6-4 along party lines. It goes next before the full Senate, and if passed, it will go directly to the November ballot.
Gloria Gomez, a senior at the University of Arizona, is the 2022 UA School of Journalism’s Don Bolles Fellow working with editors from the Arizona Mirror. Gomez has interned at the Arizona Daily Star and worked at the Arizona Daily Wildcat. She is a dual major in journalism and political science, with a Spanish minor. She’s a member of the Investigative Reporters and Editors and National Association of Hispanic Journalists. The UA School of Journalism started the fellowship in 1977 to honor Don Bolles, an Arizona Republic reporter killed in a 1976 car bombing.