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Arizona House OKs anti-critical race theory bill banning 'racially divisive' curriculum
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Arizona House OKs anti-critical race theory bill banning 'racially divisive' curriculum

  • Alan Levine | CC BY 1.0

Arizona Republican lawmakers are seeking to ban so-called "critical race theory" education in Arizona schools after the state Supreme Court last year struck down a law barring such education because it was unconstitutionally added to the state's annual budget.

Schools could be fined and teachers could lose their certification for teaching that people inherently bear blame or responsibility for something based on their race, ethnicity or gender under legislation that received preliminary approval Thursday from the Arizona House of Representatives.

House Bill 2112 prohibits instruction in public schools that "presents any form of blame or judgment on the basis of race, ethnicity or sex." Schools would be barred from teaching that any person, by virtue of those factors, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, "whether consciously or unconsciously," or that a person bears responsibility for actions committed by other members of their racial or ethnic group, or gender. And it would make it illegal for K-12 schools to teach that students should feel "discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress" because of those things.

The House of Representatives approved the bill 31-28 on a party-line vote. It now goes to the Senate.

Though the legislation doesn't use the words, HB2112 is part of the ongoing furor over "critical race theory" in schools, an issue that Republicans have taken up across the country. Technically, critical race theory is a field of academic study about the ways in which racism has become embedded in various aspects of society, such as the way racist policies in previous generations may affect contemporary housing trends.

But it has become a broader, catchall term for various race-related teachings, including instruction on "white privilege" and "anti-racism" curriculum. Critics argue that white students are being taught they're inherently racist or oppressive, or that they collectively bear responsibility for racist acts of other white people.

Rep. Michelle Udall, a Mesa Republican and the bill's sponsor, said she's received "countless pleas" from parents about "racially divisive" teachings in their schools.

For example, she said an English teacher at Mesa's Red Mountain High School last year made students research the terms "intersectionality, anti-racist and restorative justice," then had them write essays about what "privilege" they had. A social studies curriculum coach in Glendale sent her colleagues a list of materials to use in classroom discussions of race, one of which included the line, "Being anti-racist is different for white people than it is for people of color. They must acknowledge and understand their privilege." And an Arizona State University teacher training program used a book with a chapter on "why white parents don't talk about race."

"Most of the parents who contact me point to instances where kids are being categorized and pitted against each other as oppressor and oppressed — not because of anything the students have done or said, but because of immutable characteristics they have no control over," Udall said. "In some cases, they are told that whiteness is a problem they need to seek to overcome. This categorization and scapegoating will not heal racial divides. Instead, it emphasizes race, ethnicity and gender as insurmountable barriers to peace."

The administration at Red Mountain High School did not respond to a request for comment from the Arizona Mirror.

Udall, who is running for state superintendent of public instruction, said parents who raise concerns about such curriculum are unfairly dismissed as racist or told that such things aren't being taught in their children's classrooms. Specific examples are written off as outliers or misunderstandings, said.

"Disregarding parent concerns about what their children are learning is not going to work," she said.

If history is the story of how we got here, that story must include both our successes and our failures, the causes and the effects, because history isn't only behind us. It is in us. It has shaped and formed us. – Rep. Judy Schwiebert, D-Phoenix

Though Udall said the bill will not have a "chilling effect" on teachers when it comes to teaching U.S. history or race-related subjects, Democratic lawmakers said it would do exactly that by making teachers hesitant to discuss the negative parts of American history like slavery and segregation.

"Sadly, the unspoken result of this bill will likely be to provide a bludgeon to make an open, honest discussion of American history — and the injustice that's been a part of it, including the civil rights movement and the legacy of Dr. King that we just celebrated — difficult to teach," said Rep. Judy Schwiebert, a Phoenix Democrat and former educator.

"If history is the story of how we got here, that story must include both our successes and our failures, the causes and the effects, because history isn't only behind us. It is in us. It has shaped and formed us."

There are parts of the bill that lawmakers of both parties can agree on, said Rep. Mitzi Epstein, a Tempe Democrat. Along with its more controversial provisions, HB2112 prohibits schools from teaching that any race or ethnicity is superior to others, or that a person should be discriminated against because of their race, ethnicity or gender. And, Epstein said, students should obviously not be taught that they bear responsibility for things in which they had no role.

Epstein said Udall should have worked across the aisle to find common ground.

"If we were to work on that to say, of course we do not want our children to feel blame for past historical brutalities, I think we agree on that. The sins of the father should not be visited on the son. Children today are innocent. They should not feel blame," she said. "But that's not what the bill says. The bill says there should just be no talk of blame, it seems."

Epstein questioned how something like slavery could be taught without making judgment or assigning blame.

But the bill does not say curriculum cannot assign blame or make judgment, only that it can't do so on the basis of race, ethnicity or sex. It also says K-12 classroom instruction must not teach that students should feel discomfort or guilt based on their race or ethnicity.

Similar legislation has raised thorny issues in other states. In Tennessee last year, parents used a law with identical language on causing "discomfort" to oppose books written from the perspective of Mexican-Americans and from a half white, half Thai boy, and a book about Ruby Bridges, a Black 6-year-old who integrated a New Orleans elementary school in the 1960s. One mother opposed teachings about Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders because she felt they conveyed that white people are oppressors and minorities are victims.

Some Democratic lawmakers said the bill would punish teachers who are already underpaid and overworked. Chandler Democrat Jennifer Pawlik, a former classroom teacher, said legislation like HB2112 would exacerbate the state's teacher shortage by pushing more educators out of the profession — a troubling prospect, given the more than 2,000 classrooms in Arizona without qualified teachers.

"The lack of trust in our professionals will be the breaking point," Pawlik said.

Under HB2112, teachers who violate the law would be subject to disciplinary action from the State Board of Education, including suspension or revocation of their teaching certificates. School districts and charter schools would face fines of up to $5,000 for each infraction. The Attorney General's Office and county attorneys would be empowered to initiate lawsuits over alleged violations.

Lawmakers approved a similar law last year as part of the state budget, but the Arizona Supreme Court struck it down, opining that it, along with dozens of other parts of the budget, violated a provision of the state constitution stipulating that bills must encompass an individual subject. In his State of the State address, Gov. Doug Ducey called for a ban on the teaching of critical race theory in Arizona schools.

This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.


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