Caitlin Sievers

(Arizona Mirror) For the third time in as many years, Arizona lawmakers are trying to pass legislation that would ban the teaching of so-called critical race theory in public schools, though the measure stands virtually no chance of becoming law with Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs in the executive office.

While proponents say the bill would stop activist educators from teaching students that they’re inherently oppressors or oppressed based on their skin color, opponents say that it will have a chilling effect on the teaching of important historical events that centered around race.

The meeting room in the state House of Representatives building was packed on Tuesday as the House Education Committee heard arguments for and against House Bill 2458, proposed by Peoria Republican Rep. Beverly Pingerelli.

An effort to pass a similar law last year stalled out after backers couldn’t muster enough Republican support. In 2021, a provision banning the teaching of divisive racial concepts in schools was included in the annual budget, but it was one of dozens of provisions that the Arizona Supreme voided because they were unconstitutionally added to the budget package.

The only major change from last year’s bill was to make the process to file a complaint clearer, Pingerelli said.

The measure would bar educators from teaching that casts blame based on race or ethnicity in all Arizona schools, including the state’s three universities. In addition to prohibiting teachers promoting or advocating for the judgment of a person based on their race or that one race is superior to any others, it would also make it illegal to teach that anyone bears responsibility for actions of others of the same race or that things like meritocracy were created by one race to oppress members of another race.

Included in the bill is a clarification that it isn’t meant to stop instruction about racial hatred or discrimination including education about slavery, Native American removal, the Holocaust or the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII.

Students, parents and employees of a school district could file a complaint if they believed an educator was in violation of the law, and the district superintendent would then determine if a violation had occurred. That decision could be appealed to the district’s governing board. Teachers or professors who violate the law would be subject to a $5,000 fine.

Pingerelli said the bill is needed because of the “pernicious philosophy that has taken root in higher education that teaches that the country is fundamentally rooted in evil formation” and that some groups are “oppressive by their nature.”

She added that teaching students that they are either the oppressor or the oppressed puts a “burdensome weight” on their shoulders.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, who campaigned on a promise to rid schools of critical race theory, praised the bill during the hearing.

He said it was an “urban myth” that critical race theory was not taught in K-12 public schools, adding that parents started to notice it was being taught when students were learning from home during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and that they were “profoundly shocked at what they saw.”

Critical race theory is a graduate-level field of academic study about the ways that racism is embedded in various aspects of society — but it has turned into a catchall term for various race-related teachings, including instruction on white privilege and anti-racism.

Rep. Judy Schwiebert, D-Phoenix, a former teacher, said that school districts already have protocols in place for parents to make complaints about teaching that they disagree with: They can complain to the teacher, principal, superintendent or school board.

Democratic Rep. Nancy Gutierrez, who teaches at a Tucson high school, worried that the legislation would put the school’s culturally relevant courses, developed through a federal desegregation order, at risk.

The courses are electives that teach state standards through the African American, Native American or Mexican American lens. When Horne was previously in the superintendent seat, he fought against Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American studies program, which was dismantled after the state passed a law in 2010 that took aim at ethnic studies. A federal court found that law, as well as Horne’s enforcement of it, was rooted in racial animus.

The district re-implemented culturally relevant courses in 2015, with efforts to ensure they weren’t in violation of the law.

Rep. Laura Terech, D-Scottsdale, pointed out that many of the the concerns Pingerelli’s bill seems to target are already addressed in the law that Horne authored back in 2010, which says public schools cannot teach courses that promote “resentment for a race or class of people or advocate for ethnic solidarity instead of treating students as individuals.”

Pingerelli said that her bill lays out a clear process for parents and students to make complaints, something the 2010 bill doesn’t do.

Terech also expressed concerns that implementation of the bill could put Arizona schools at risk of losing their Advanced Placement designations if certain course requirements were removed from AP classes. Students who pass AP classes can receive college credit for the classes taken during high school, but the content of the classes is governed by the College Board, and students would not receive college credit if the AP designation is removed.

“Our students deserve an honest, thoughtful, quality education,” Terech said. “It helps all of us become wiser and stronger as a country so that we do not repeat the same mistakes of the past. We solve problems by engaging in fact-based, courageous and sometimes difficult dialogue.”

Sandra Christensen, a mother of a Paradise Valley High School student and a recently elected Paradise Valley Unified School District board member, spoke in favor of the bill. Christensen said she is a Latina who didn’t even know she was considered a minority when she was growing up. She said she’s spent the past two years reviewing curricula in the district and said Paradise Valley doesn’t teach CRT — but it does teach diversity, equity and inclusion.

“Those lessons are distractions from what we send our kids to school for,” she said. “It’s not racist to say set the bar high for all children.”

Adam Metzendorf, a former Democratic congressional candidate, spoke against the bill. Metzendorf, who is Jewish, said he was taught early on the importance of knowing history so that society continues to improve and learn from its mistakes.

“The provisions in this bill are broad and the consequences severe,” he said. “Many instances in history and how they can make someone feel as defined by provisions in this bill are subjective and open to interpretation.”

If using the term “white supremacist” when teaching about the Civil Rights movement offends a white student, should that lesson be scrapped, he asked the committee. He added that he believes the bill will be a deterrent to teaching about some race-related issues in history, even if that isn’t its intention.

The bill passed the committee on a 6-4 vote along party lines. Its next step is consideration by the full state House of Representatives.