Proposed Arizona Measure Would Punish Teachers For Political Discussion In Classrooms

By Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services
Published: Tuesday, May 7, 2019 - 2:59pm
Updated: Tuesday, May 7, 2019 - 3:00pm

Mark Finchem
Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services
Mark Finchem

Unable to get even a hearing on his plan, Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, is now working with parents and some teachers to put a measure on the 2020 Arizona ballot to block educators from engaging in classroom political advocacy.

The initiative filed with the Arizona Secretary of State's Office would require the Arizona Board of Education to adopt a "classroom code of conduct.''

In its basic form, the measure would prohibit teachers and teaching assistants in public schools from a whole host of activities. These range from endorsing or opposing candidates and legislation to introducing any "partial political issue that is not germane to the topic of the course or academic subject being taught.''

The code would have teeth.

A first offense carries a warning that remains in the employment file for a year; a second violation requires a suspension of someone's teaching certificate for up to 30 days.

And there also are provisions which allow not only the attorney general and county attorney to file complaints and seek enforcement, including going to court, but also would give that right to any resident of the school district where the violation occurred.

The initiative largely mirrors House Bill 2002 that Finchem filed even before the legislative session began in January.

But House Speaker Rusty Bowers did not even assign the measure to a committee for a hearing. An aide to the speaker said Bowers, noting that Republicans hold just a 31-29 edge in the House, decided to hold bills "that were unlikely to receive sufficient support to pass out of the House.''

Finchem said his constituents were not willing to let the issue die like that.

"I think that some of the folks in the media have underestimated the level of anger, seething anger that parents and teachers have over kids that are getting bullied in the classroom,'' he said. And by "bullied,'' Finchem means being forced-fed views.

Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, called the code unnecessary.

"This is something where we elect governing boards to provide guidance at the district level,'' he said.

Finchem isn't buying it.

"Apparently it's not being done,'' he said. "Otherwise I wouldn't have so many pissed-off parents and teachers.''

Proponents have until July 2, 2020, to gather at least 237,645 valid signatures to put the measure on the ballot that year.

The group's legal filings list Catherine A. Barrett of Phoenix as the chair of what has been dubbed Yes for a Classroom Code of Ethics. Messages left with the organization were not immediately returned.

But the committee's web site says the purpose behind the initiative is that "political activity is out of control in today's public school classrooms.''

Much of the focus on teachers followed last year's Red for Ed movement that eventually led to a week-long strike.

The pressure from teachers also resulted in Gov. Doug Ducey, who originally had proposed just a 1 percent pay hike for teachers, agreeing to a four-year plan to boost average teacher salaries by 20 percent.

That, however, has not ended the movement, with some educators continuing to wear their #RedforEd T-shirts into classrooms as they contend the state needs to do more. Remaining issues range from funds for classroom equipment and supplies to the fact that the Ducey plan does not include classified staff like librarians and guidance counselors.

"This is a retaliation bill,'' said Thomas.

But that still leaves the question of whether wearing the shirts into classes — and getting questions from students about the issues — is a political statement and would get an educator into trouble.

"I don't see how that's illegal,'' said Thomas.

Finchem said it's not that simple.

"Can a teacher wear a MAGA hat in the classroom?'' he asked, referring to the Trump campaign of Make America Great Again.

Thomas rejected that comparison.

" 'Red for Ed' means we can do better for our kids,'' he said. Still, the message might not be that clear.

"The only way it could become a partisan statement is if one political party completely abdicates their responsibility to fund public education,'' Thomas said. "Then you might be able to say it was partisan because there would be only one party that would be supporting it.''

And if a #RedforEd T-shirt is over the line, he asked, what about one for Earth Day?

Finchem said he sees the issue in simpler terms, saying school and taxpayer resources cannot be used for political activities.

"It's that simple,'' he said. "Like my dad used to say, If you have to ask the question you probably already know the answer.''

The initiative has an exception of sorts: The ban on advocacy would not extend to "historical matters.''

So teachers could opine on elected officials or candidates who have not been in office or on the ballot since at least 1971. Also permitted would be commenting on laws enacted prior to 1971 as well as political parties that have not existed since then.

Politics Education