Several School Districts Crack Down on #RedForEd Apparel

#RedForEd shirts like these are now prohibited at several Valley school districts.
#RedForEd shirts like these are now prohibited at several Valley school districts. Zee Peralta
Several Valley school districts have banned the instantly recognizable #RedForEd T-shirts now that the teachers' strike is over and organizers have turned their attention to the November election.

Administrators at the schools issued a warning this week to staff: Don't violate a state law that prohibits political advocacy by school employees using school time or resources.

The law (ARS 15-511) governs the use of school district resources for political purposes and states that an employee who uses school resources "for the purpose of influencing the outcomes of elections" can be hit with a civil penalty up to $5,000.

Employees are prohibited from using their position to influence subordinates on an election issue, per the statute. They also can't give students written materials to influence an election, nor can they voice an opinion for or against proposed legislation in the classroom.

From the point of view of district administrators, this law has new relevance because teachers have turned to the ballot box to achieve their goals since the strike ended on May 3.

#RedForEd leaders have started pushing a ballot initiative, the Invest in Education Act, which would raise income taxes on wealthy Arizonans in order to increase teacher pay. The measure, sponsored by the Arizona Center for Economic Progress, needs more than 150,000 signatures by July 5 to make the November ballot.

In an email to district employees obtained by Phoenix New Times, Chandler Unified School District Superintendent Camille Casteel explained the new policy.

“Now that #RedForEd has morphed into #InvestInEd, the rules have changed. Districts, schools and individuals will be under more scrutiny," Casteel wrote to staff on Wednesday.

Casteel said that the district is prohibiting employees from promoting the ballot measure at school by wearing shirts with political messages, or displaying signs, in order to ensure that the district complies with the letter of the law.

“You can wear red on Wednesday, but there can be no politically related message on your clothing," Casteel wrote. "And please remember to not engage with students on this topic."

Casteel is a frequent supporter of education initiatives from the office of Governor Doug Ducey. CUSD was one of the few districts that announced it would reopen on the Monday after the strike began, but the administration was forced to reverse course after employees said that they would not show up to work.

According to CUSD spokesperson Terry Locke, district employees wore #RedForEd apparel throughout the spring. So far, no employees have been disciplined as a result of the rule change, he said. 

Mesa Public Schools has taken a similar position on #RedForEd T-shirts.

Helen Hollands, a Mesa district spokesperson, wrote in an email that staff have been instructed to “not wear T-shirts that convey, directly or indirectly, a political, religious or moral message while on duty.”

“This includes the various RedforEd T-shirts and any other message T-shirt that may replace it as the RedforEd movement transitions to a ballot-measure campaign,” Hollands wrote.

Red clothing that does not bear a political message is okay, Hollands said. Wearing T-shirts with a political message is also allowed if teachers are not on duty but are on school grounds for a public event like a sports game or concert.

Phoenix Union High School District spokesperson Craig Pletenik said that no decision has been made yet on #RedForEd shirts specifically, but under ARS 15-511, prohibited activities include campaign signs, political buttons and, yes, T-shirts.

"We will be reminding our employees that elections have different restrictions than legislative advocacy," Pletenik wrote in an email.

The Kyrene Elementary School District told staff in an FAQ section of their website on April 27 that because an initiative may be on the ballot, "advocating for that initiative using school resources would be prohibited" under state law.

"This may include the wearing of shirts, displaying of signs, or other promotional activities at school that have messages related to the initiative or #RedforEd," the district stated.

Kyrene explained that as private citizens, district employees are free to engage in political work, as long as they do not use district resources and make it clear that they do not represent the school district.

In the Buckeye Elementary School District, Superintendent Kristi Sandvik told staff in a May 9 letter that employees may wear red, but shirts that have messages like #RedForEd are prohibited now that the #RedForEd leaders have thrown their support behind the Invest in Education Act. That story was first reported by radio station KTAR.

Sandvik put shirts that say "Save Our Schools" in the same category. SOS Arizona is another grassroots education group pushing a different ballot initiative — one that would invalidate a school voucher law.

Other school districts, including Phoenix Elementary and the Paradise Valley Unified School District, did not have an immediate answer when asked about rule changes prohibiting #RedForEd apparel.

In some ways, school districts are doing the work of conservative Arizona lawmakers and #RedForEd opponents who sought to undermine the movement and argued that #RedForEd was a partisan effort from the start.

Before the strike, Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas emphasized that the strike was illegal. She warned teachers that any complaints filed against school employees as a result of the strike would be thoroughly investigated by the Arizona Department of Education.

And during the marathon budget debate on May 2, Representative Kelly Townsend, a Republican from Mesa, proposed three amendments to scrutinize school employees suspected of violating ARS 15-511. One amendment would have prohibited teachers from expressing political beliefs or ideology in the classroom; another would allow legislators to direct the state attorney general to investigate alleged violations of the law at schools.

Townsend's proposals failed, but not before she argued that teachers don't have a First Amendment right to express political views in the classroom.

"It is far beyond time that we rein in the indoctrination of our children in the public school system," Townsend said during the debate.
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Joseph Flaherty is a staff writer at New Times. Originally from Wisconsin, he is a graduate of Middlebury College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Contact: Joseph Flaherty

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