Arizona House moves to require teachers to present sides of 'controversial' issues

Posted 5/5/21

PHOENIX — Republican lawmakers voted Wednesday to punish teachers who don't present both sides of controversial science or events, a move some lawmakers say could force them to seek out and …

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Arizona House moves to require teachers to present sides of 'controversial' issues


PHOENIX — Republican lawmakers voted Wednesday to punish teachers who don't present both sides of controversial science or events, a move some lawmakers say could force them to seek out and present contrary views on everything from climate change and slavery to the 9-11 terrorist attacks, the Holocaust — and even whether Joe Biden really won the election.

The measure approved along party lines requires any "controversial issues'' discussed in the classroom must be done "from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.''

"While there are many outstanding teachers in our schools, there are a handful that try to teach students what to think instead of how to think,'' said Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa. "Propaganda and one-sided political ideology should have no place in our classroom."

She said there have been complaints by parents that their children are being taught things that some people do not believe to be true.

Much of what is in her amendment to Senate Bill 1532 is aimed at precluding instruction that one race, ethnic group or sex is "inherently morally or intellectually superior to another.'' Rep. Udall's measure also would bar teaching that any individual bears responsibility for actions committed by others of the same race, ethic group or sex.

"It simply prevents teaching our students that their race determines their character, treatment or worth,'' she said. "Biased, unbalanced teaching hurts children.''

But Rep. Randall Friese, D-Tucson, said the measure is based on a false premise.

"It is not propaganda that our country enslaved people for 400 years,'' he said. "It is not propaganda that native tribes had their land taken by our forefathers.''

Rep. Udall insisted =nothing stops that from being taught.

"We all acknowledge that these things happened,'' she said.

But Rep. Udall's legislation contains no definition of what is "controversial'' and, under her proposal, could not be presented as fact but instead would require a teacher to provide an alternate view or face discipline. Rep. Friese suggested that might only be defined in retrospective after a parent objects to something that already was taught.

That lack of definition alarmed some legislators who pointed out that any teacher who violates the law is subject to not just a $5,000 fine but would be forced to reimburse the school for any "misused monies.''

Rep. Udall brushed aside some examples of what might land a teacher in trouble. For example, she said, a teacher would not have to present alternate theories about whether the earth is round.

She said an "accurate portrayal of historical events'' would be permitted. And she said that "largely discredited'' theories do not need to be presented as fact.

But then legislators started asking about specific examples.

Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, said there are those who believe there were positive aspects of slavery and that some slaves were treated better than others.

"Suppose that a teacher were to teach, and believed was an accurate portrayal, that all slavery was bad, that all masters were bad?'' she asked.

"If the sources are well understood and if it's well-cited, that would be considered an accurate portrayal,'' Rep. Udall said. "If it's not something that has been discredited it would be considered an accurate portrayal.''

But Rep. Diego Rodriguez, D-Phoenix, said Rep. Udall's measure makes issues where there should be none.

"It is not a controversial statement to say slavery was the cause of the Civil War and not an issue of states' rights,'' he said. Ditto, Rep. Rodriguez said, would be a statement in a current events class saying that Joe Biden was elected in a fair and free election.

"And now we're going to have to 'both-sides' this?'' he asked.

And what of climate change, Rep. Salman said, where there is a small group of scientists who contend either it is not occurring or that humans play no role. Does that, too, she asked, require equal time?

"If they're working on controversial topics they should teach them from diverse and contending perspectives without giving preference to either side and let students draw their own conclusion,'' Rep. dall responded.

Rep. Kelli Butler, D-Paradise Valley, asked about the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

"There are ample conspiracy theories as to whether that happened, how it happened,'' she said. Rep. Butler wanted to know if a teacher who believes the attacks occurred and who caused them would then have to bring in someone with an alternate viewpoint.

"Because there are a lot them,'' she said.

"You can just Google it,'' Rep. Butler continued. "There are all kinds of videos. It's a pretty established conspiracy theory.''

Rep. Udall said she wasn't concerned.

"Largely discredited arguments don't need to be presented as fact,'' she said.

But Rep. Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, said even local issues can fall into the same category.

She told colleagues about Felix Longoria, who died during World War II, came home in a flag-draped coffin but was denied a wake at a Texas funeral home "because white people would be upset.''

"Our teachers should be allowed to speak about Felix Longoria,'' Rep. Fernandez said. "But they can't teach it unless they can talk about why his family was denied a place to honor their father, their son, a husband, a friend and a neighbor.''

Rep. Frank Carroll, R-Sun City West, said he sees the legislation as simply an extension of existing law, which declares that parents have a right to direct the education of their minor child "without obstruction or interference from this state.''

"So this is for the parents and this is for the children to be able to stand up against the bad actors,'' he said, meaning teachers who don't honor that law.

And Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, compared all this to the move by some to remove monuments because of what it represents.

"That's called rewriting history,'' he said. "Whether you like that monument or not, that monument exists as a marker in time to provoke thought, which, of course, provokes critical thinking.''

Even the method Rep. Udall used to bring the issue to the full House for a vote was itself controversial.

Rather than going through the full process, which would have guaranteed at least one public hearing, she attached it to a semi-related measure that would make it illegal for teachers to use school resources to "organize, plan or execute any activity that impedes or prevents a public school from operating for any period of time.''

That followed a decision by some teachers in the Peoria Unified School District to stage a sick-out in January after the board decided to reopen schools for in-person learning despite the fact that the "metrics'' of the level of infection showed it was not yet safe to do that.

Heather Rooks, a parent in the district, testified at a hearing that she had evidence that teachers were sending emails from school servers during school hours to organize the event.

The now-amended version of SB 1532 now returns the bill to the Senate — which approved it without that language. And it, like the House, can approve it without a public hearing.