By Gloria Gomez/UA Don Bolles Fellow/AZ Mirror
PHOENX — To allow parents to scour lessons for elements of “critical race theory,” Arizona teachers would be required to upload a list of every book and worksheet they use in their classrooms online for parental review if a Republican-backed bill becomes law.
The goal, says state Sen. Nancy Barto, is to increase transparency for parents who are concerned about their children’s education. Senate Bill 1211 requires schools to publicly post all materials and class activities on their website at least 7 days after being used. That means the names, authors, and organizations associated with the materials, along with links if they’re available for free online or descriptions if they’re not. Materials encompass everything from textbooks and worksheets to YouTube videos and phone apps.
Lesson plans that include topics like race, gender, diversity and non-discrimination must be posted at least 72 hours before they’re carried out.
“More sunshine on what our kids are involved in is a great thing,” Barto, the Phoenix Republican who introduced the bill, said.
This is the second attempt to enshrine this into law, and a response to conservatives’ concern about so-called “critical race theory” being taught in classrooms. Conservatives have appropriated critical race theory as a catchall to describe basically any serious attempt to teach the history of race and racism in America.
Nicole Solas flew in from Rhode Island in support of the bill during a hearing on Tuesday afternoon. Solas was sued by the National Education Association after she filed more than 200 public records requests to determine whether her daughter’s school taught critical race theory. Solas said she was testifying on Arizona legislation so she could take the ideas back to Rhode Island.
She is being represented by the Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix-based libertarian think tank that drafted the bill and is using it as model legislation in other states. Matt Beienburg, Goldwater Institute’s education policy director, said the organization supports other proposed bills of the same vein in 20 other states.
One proponent of the bill is Steve Daniels, the chairman of the right-wing extremist Patriot Party, who spent much of 2021 disrupting local school board meetings to protest mask mandates and how race is taught in schools. At one meeting, he was arrested for trespassing.
“It is racist curriculum — it singles kids out for the color of their skin and tells them: ‘If you’re white, you’re a racist and you can’t help it because you were born that way,’” he said of critical race theory education.
Critical race theory, in fact, is an analysis of how racism exists at a systemic level, and does not imply that white people are intrinsically racist. The Arizona chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union condemned the bill as an attempt to make it more difficult to teach inclusion.
“Any bill that interferes with our children’s education by undermining teachers’ ability to facilitate discussions about our country’s history, including our struggles with race, sex and LGBQT+ rights, should not become law,” Darrell Hill, the organization’s policy director, said in an email.
Several local parents also spoke in favor of the bill.
Amy Carney, a mother of six, held up a printout of a page from the Scottsdale Unified School District’s website and said that the majority of links to teacher syllabi were broken.
“If our schools are proud of the materials they’re using in their classes, there should be no problem (uploading them),” she said.
One mother, Kerwin Franklin, pointed out that her child’s charter school sent her descriptions of the curriculum and even ISBN numbers for the textbooks being used so she could easily look them up. She was required to sign a form to acknowledge she read the curriculum paperwork.
The Arizona Charter Schools Association is opposed to the bill, and told the Arizona Mirror that it would unnecessarily increase the workload on already stressed schools and teachers. Matthew Ladner, the association’s director of the Arizona Center for Student Opportunity, said member schools have reached out with concerns.
“(They’re) not philosophically opposed to the concept of transparency,” he said.
Educators said the bill has problems. Former Mesa public school teacher Judith Simons said policies like those in SB1211 are part of the reason she retired after 33 years. She referred to it as “creeping micromanagement,” and said it would constrain the creativity and responsiveness of teachers.
Every student is different and requires curriculum adjustments, Simons said. Having to report all of their instructional decisions constitutes extra work with no commensurate compensation and may disincentivize personalized teaching. Rather than mandate more work for teachers, Simons said parents who are concerned about their child’s education should simply communicate directly with their children’s teachers.
“Please treat teachers with respect and trust their professionalism,” she said.
Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Paradise Valley, who used to be a high school teacher, said she sometimes had to provide abridged versions of difficult literary works to struggling students. The requirement to report those books could result in confusion and arguments with parents about who is using the abridged versions and why.
Another former teacher, Rachael Clawson, said that requiring teachers to report their curriculums would prevent them from making quick changes —- something that has become more commonplace during the pandemic. Clawson herself had to trash all of the teaching guides she drew up in advance of her maternity leave when her school switched to remote learning. Ultimately, curriculum concerns are best left to be resolved by one- on- one communication between parents and teachers.
“This is not transparency, it is government overreach,” she firmly concluded.
Melissa Ewing, a substitute teacher for six years, said approving the measure would exacerbate the already difficult task of being an educator and would likely add to the shortage by convincing current teachers to leave the profession and dissuading future teachers from joining because it implies a deep distrust of them.
The results of a survey conducted last October by the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association estimated that as much as 25.9% of teacher vacancies in Arizona remained unfilled and 55.4% of the vacancies were remedied by teachers who don’t meet state certification standards.
The Arizona Department of Education opposes SB1211 because it places a “high administrative burden” on schools and teachers. The department advised parents to take advantage of curriculum nights and parent-teacher conferences to resolve concerns.
“We know parents and teachers share the same goal of helping their students learn and grow, that goal is best met by building stronger, trusting relationships, instead of accusatory rhetoric and burdensome policy proposals,” the department’s spokesperson, Morgan Dick, said in an email to the Arizona Mirror.
Joe Thomas, the president of the Arizona Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said the bill would dissuade teachers from engaging their students in off-the-cuff ways and not deviate at all from the lesson plan. Thomas shared the story of a highly awarded teacher who was gifted an apple by a student before class and shifted his lesson to include discussing how bacteria can accumulate by making a show of dropping it after he bit into it in front of his class and examining samples from it later.
“You are handcuffing what your educators can bring into the classroom. Asking them to post everything except the test is untenable,” Thomas said.
The bill does allow for lessons about non-sensitive topics — that don’t include discussions of race or gender — to be uploaded within seven days after they’re taught.
Sen. Rick Gray, R-Peoria, heatedly said committee members have been contacted by numerous parents, which should have been solved by school officials but hasn’t been.
Thomas replied that cases where parents and teachers aren’t communicating effectively aren’t systemic enough to warrant legislation, and resolutions are best handled at the local level.
Gray challenged Thomas to come up with a better solution, to which Thomas laughed and thanked him for being afforded seconds to respond. Later, Chairman Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, stated he himself successfully thought up some ideas in seconds and said school districts could post curriculum on their websites — which would be required under this bill — and host curriculum nights. Members of the audience yelled out “they do” in response.
Boyer is a high school teacher at a Valley charter school.
SB1211 was approved by the committee along party lines. It awaits approval by the Senate floor.
Barto, who sponsored the bill, said she hoped it would help repair the trust broken between parents and teachers, and that parents concerned about what their children are exposed to in the classroom deserve answers.
“Our kids belong to our parents, not the schools,” she said.
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.