Arizona Teachers Went on Strike. Now Lawmakers Aim to Ban Politics in Classrooms

Participants in the #RedForEd protest last spring.
Participants in the #RedForEd protest last spring. Zee Peralta
A specter is haunting Arizona schools – the specter of socialism.

That's according to Representative Kelly Townsend, a Republican legislator from Mesa, now the sponsor of a controversial bill that bars teachers from expressing their political ideology or religious beliefs in the classroom.

Townsend explained at a committee hearing on Monday that she has "a very real problem when things like socialism and other ideologies are impressed upon the children outside of the curriculum."

"That's my child, and I don't want my child coming out with a poster with a Marxist fist with a pencil on it thinking, 'That's great,'" Townsend said.

"I don't want my child coming out with a poster with a Marxist fist with a pencil on it thinking, 'That's great.'"

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Her measure, HB 2015, prohibits anyone "acting on behalf of a school district" from using school time "to espouse a political ideology or religious belief, unless it is germane to the subject matter of the class or activity."

The timing of the bill is probably not a coincidence. A little more than a year ago, Arizona teachers began agitating for higher pay and school funding, a movement that culminated in an unprecedented statewide strike last April.

At Monday's hearing of the House Education Committee, Republican lawmakers endorsed the proposal to curb political and religious speech during school time, advancing the measure to the full House with a pass recommendation on a party-line vote.

Townsend's warning about socialist indoctrination echoes a recurring criticism of the #RedForEd activists. Like other lawmakers, she has claimed the educators who led the strike harbored radical left-wing views.

Among Arizona legislators, Townsend is perhaps the most vocal adversary of the #RedForEd movement, which seeks increased teacher pay and school funding. And she has brought up the shadow of Marxist imagery before. Last April, Townsend posted photos to her Facebook page which compared a #RedForEd protest sign — which depicts a pencil and fist overlaid on the state of Arizona — with the symbol of the International Socialist Organization.   

Teachers complained during the 2018 teacher revolt that they had been ignored for years by politicians at the Capitol.

The attention they're getting this year, in the form of a political speech bill, looks like revenge to frustrated educators.

On Monday evening, the bill crossed an important threshold when the House Education Committee approved it in a 8-5 vote after a marathon session that lasted until 10 p.m.

A couple of citizens at the hearing criticized the #RedForEd movement and compared activists to a cabal seeking to take over Arizona schools.

But educators strongly opposed to the bill testified that the measure would stifle classroom discussion. Opponents have referred to Townsend's bill as a retaliatory move against the educators who led or participated in the #RedForEd teachers' strike last spring.

Townsend defended her proposal at the hearing from accusations that she drafted the bill as retribution for the #RedForEd strike. "It is by no means to harm teachers or to do anything to punish them for any actions they may have taken," she insisted.

She said she sponsored the bill to address the problem of teachers who offer political opinions in class during a polarized environment. 

"This is in response to the political activity going on in the schools that many parents have a big problem with," Townsend said. As one example, she referred to a September 2017 story from a conservative blog about an Arizona teacher who displayed editorial cartoons critical of President Donald Trump.

Advocating for one side of a legislative issue in the classroom is already illegal under Arizona law, as is using school district resources to influence an election. Violations carry a maximum fine of $5,000.

"There's a lot of anger around the things that have happened last year, and this, I'm afraid, is going to ignite it..." - Joe Thomas, AEA president

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Although violations are rare, in the aftermath of the strike, teachers have been punished under the current legal framework.

Two employees in the Phoenix Union High School District were disciplined and fined several hundred dollars late last year for political activity, the Arizona Republic reported. A teacher who serves as the union representative in the district mentioned the Invest in Education initiative during a speech to employees, and another teacher displayed an Invest in Ed sign in a classroom window.

In this case, both teachers were fined because the Invest in Ed ballot measure was an election issue. Although activists with the #RedForEd movement obtained the required number of signatures to qualify for the ballot, the Arizona Supreme Court kicked the initiative off the ballot in late August.

Townsend characterized her bill as a simple attempt to align Arizona law with court decisions, namely the 2006 Supreme Court decision on the speech of government employees, Garcetti v. Ceballos. But while Townsend used the case as a legal justification for curtailing teachers' speech in schools, the Garcetti decision is narrower – and more controversial – than Townsend's explanation would lead the listener to believe.

The case pertained not to a teacher in a classroom, but to statements made by a deputy district attorney during a criminal case. The court specifically avoided the question of whether the restriction applies to speech "related to scholarship or teaching."

Don Johnsen, an attorney and former high school teacher, testified before the committee and told them to read the Garcetti v. Ceballos decision carefully. "The Supreme Court has not decided that this kind of speech is not protected. It's going to be an open question," he said.

Because of the language of the bill, Johnsen predicted that money will "flow to the pockets of lawyers like me defending all of the First Amendment cases that we're going to get over the vagaries in this bill."

As an example, he pointed out that the bill's key word, "espouse," lacks a clear-cut definition. Does a "Choose Life" bumper sticker on a teacher's car parked in the school parking lot constitute a violation worth $5,000, Johnsen asked?

"I don't think that's the result you want," he said. 

During this legislative session, Townsend is forging ahead with bills related to #RedForEd activism. HB 2015 is just one of her bills targeting political activity in schools.

Townsend's other proposals would prohibit teachers from harassing a colleague, parent, or student; empower legislators to call for an investigation of a school district employee or governing board member by the attorney general; and force school districts to remain open except in the event of a calamity.

At the hearing on Monday, Townsend acknowledged the latter bill was written specifically in response to #RedForEd activity. Just prior to last year's strike, school districts closed their doors in anticipation of the mass walkout.

Unlike her bill on political speech, the other bills from Townsend have not received a committee hearing.

Representative Mark Finchem, like Townsend,  has sponsored a similar bill that would establish a code of ethics for educators and block them from discussing controversial subjects if they are irrelevant to the class material. The Oro Valley Republican cribbed the language of the code from a far-right organization's initiative to combat "indoctrination" in schools.

click to enlarge State Representative Kelly Townsend. - STEVEN HSIEH
State Representative Kelly Townsend.
Steven Hsieh
During the party-line vote on the bill, Republicans on the committee were supportive of her overall goal, while Democrats criticized the bill as an unnecessary restatement of a rule already enshrined in state law.

Democratic Representative Geraldine Peten, a longtime school administrator from Goodyear, said the bill goes too far in a state already struggling to recruit and retain teachers.

Moreover, she argued the bill oversteps the local control of school boards. "It's not our job to micromanage every aspect that your teacher does," Peten said.

Edgar Ochoa, a social studies teacher, said he was troubled by the bill's vague language. The ban on teachers who "espouse" a political ideology might intimidate educators who want to engage in thoughtful critical thinking exercises, he told the committee.

"I think it's going to create an atmosphere of intimidation, even if that's not your goal at all," Ochoa said at the meeting. 

The president of the Arizona teachers' union warned lawmakers that the measure represents overreach, adding that he doesn't view political speech in the classroom as a major problem.

"I just don't see, in my travels, educators that have the time to promote a political ideology," Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas said. "And this will have an incredible chilling effect if it's not done correctly."

Educators perceive the bill as retaliation, Thomas said, even if Townsend has good intentions in sponsoring the measure.

Thomas told the legislators educators are watching resurgent teacher activism this week in West Virginia – the same state where a strike inspired Arizona teachers to do the same last year – and suggested that if the measure goes through, it could start something in Arizona.

"There's a lot of anger around the things that have happened last year, and this, I'm afraid, is going to ignite it in a way that no one's going to be able to understand," Thomas said. "So I would just say, let's slow down and let's make certain that we get this right." 
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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