Arizona GOP lawmakers fight schools at Capitol & local board meetings
Politicization of public education is driving teachers away & harming students, school advocates say
It’s 6:30 p.m. on a school night, and a normally quiet residential street in Glendale is crowded with protestors, loudspeakers and angry shouts.
On the afternoon of March 9, residents from across the Valley descended on Washington Elementary School District’s office to express their support or outrage with the board’s refusal to renew a contract with Arizona Christian University allowing its students to do their student teaching in the district.
The unanimous move by the district’s governing board was based on an anti-LGBTQ statement of faith the university requires its students to commit to because it is in opposition to the district’s inclusion policies.
Leading the charge against the board was Republican state Sen. Anthony Kern, in the latest iteration of the GOP’s culture war against schools. Two trucks with large LED screen flashing demands for the resignation of board members flanked the group of critics, who gathered in the driveway of a home across the street from the district’s office and denounced the board’s move as discriminatory.
Talk quickly devolved into anti-LGBTQ comments, with one speaker dismissing the existence of trans people, and another deriding same-sex marriage. Kern, who represents Glendale, called the board’s decision a “demonic assault” on Christian values and referred to students dancing in support of LGBTQ youth in the district’s parking lot across the way as “perverse young people”.
This is just the latest recent example of Republican lawmakers taking sides in local school board conflicts to advance their battle against perceived leftist agendas in the classroom. Earlier this month, the far-right Arizona Freedom Caucus, of which Kern is a member, held a press conference to call for the resignation of Scottsdale Superintendent Scott Menzel, who faced backlash after conservative outlets amplified a 2019 interview he gave which included comments on a book about white privilege.
Public school advocates say when political rhetoric takes center stage, the education community suffers.
“When you have legislators who are outright stating they believe school districts are failing and cast public education — and public schools, in particular — as a literal enemy of parents, that is not helpful at all,” said Chris Kotterman, a lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association.
Tensions between a vocal minority of parents and their school boards were already simmering before the pandemic, but school closures and then the subsequent masking policies created a flashpoint in the debate, and ramped up accusations from lawmakers since then only worsened the issue.
Things like the specter of critical race theory, or CRT, used as a catch-all term for any meaningful discussion of racism, and other perceived social agendas in schools have turned school board meetings hostile. As a result, the 2022 election cycle saw a number of school board candidates resign their seats rather than deal with any more vitriol, Kotterman said.
At the March 9 Washington Elementary governing board meeting, members shared that they received multiple death and assault threats via email, some of which were referred to the FBI.
Rebecca Gau, executive director of education equity group Stand for Children, added that recent interjections from lawmakers represent a move away from the established practice of deferring to experts. Arizona has long been a proponent of local control when it comes to curriculum, upholding a set of grade-level benchmark standards instead of mandating specific coursework statewide. School boards are best situated to determine how to apply those standards at the local level, Gau said.
“They’re best suited to develop the curriculum,” she said. “They’re closest to their community’s needs and values.”
And that includes responding to the particular needs of specific student groups, added attorney and progressive activist Chris Love, whose sister served on Chandler Unified School District’s governing board.
“The school boards are the folks that are closest to the issues in the district,” she said. “The current political agenda can be harmful to our most marginalized students, including POC and LGBTQ students.”
LGBTQ students have recently come under repeated attack from GOP lawmakers, who have unanimously backed measures that restrict preferred pronoun use in schools and prohibit students from using bathrooms consistent with their gender identity. Defending LGBTQ students is the purview of school boards, Love said. The Washington Elementary School District board cited those legislative proposals as part of the reasoning behind refusing to renew its contract with Arizona Christian University.
The Arizona Department of Education also has a role in that effort, Love said, but political ideology also bleeds into that office, which has sided with lawmakers to denounce WESD’s decision. Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, a Republican, also criticized the move, tweeting that any negative reference to someone’s religion is “profoundly immoral”.
“At a time when we have so many laws in the state legislature that target LGBTQ people, and especially students, the superintendent of public instruction really needs to make sure that the students are safe and are provided a safe environment for learning,” Love said.
Marisol Garcia, president of the Arizona Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union, said assaults from lawmakers in and out of the classroom only contribute to Arizona’s ongoing teacher shortage.
“It’s not shocking to me that people are leaving in droves to go to other states, to other professions,” she said.
As of January, 2,890 teaching positions remained unfilled by qualified candidates, and more than 1,800 of those were due to teachers severing their own employment. That hesitancy, Garcia said, is only exacerbated by the rhetoric lawmakers espouse and the laws they propose.
For three years in a row, GOP legislators have tried to ban the teaching of so-called critical race theory in schools, despite the fact that it’s a collegiate level course. And a slew of measures – some of which have been signed into law under Republican leadership — criminalize teachers for “usurping” the rights of parents to raise their children, punish teachers for exposing students to “sexually explicit materials” or question what’s being taught in classrooms and educator trainings.
The suspicion lawmakers engender between parents and teachers isn’t helpful, Garcia said.
“There are politicians who are intent on instilling this fear amongst neighbors and parents, and I just don’t see how this benefits students,” she said.
Teachers are professionals who undergo years of training to make it into the classroom, she added, and placing legislative roadblocks in their paths is frustrating, especially when lawmakers have no experience with what teaching entails.
“Imagine living your professional career: You worked really hard, paid a lot of money to become this professional,” Garcia said. “And then these politicians down at the Capitol, — many of which haven’t even stepped foot in a public school, haven’t done any study on brain development, or pedagogy of students ensuring grade-level (teaching) — they’re the ones determining these things.”
This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.