Elizabeth Salazar, Arizona Policy Advisor, UnidosUS
If you’ve been an educator, chances are a student has raised a controversial topic in the classroom before. It can be uncomfortable and tricky to try and help students share their opinions and emotions in a safe and productive manner. In an era where students have unprecedented access to information, a 24-hour news cycle news, and politically charged social media content, teachers all over the country are facilitating complicated discussions on many issues every day. These issues include parts of our national history that many of us are re-learning and just starting to fully understand due to heavily edited versions we learned in school through the eyes and pens of the victor. Recently, in Arizona, state legislators attempted to pass a bill that would have made these conversations dangerous, and even financially punitive for educators. SB1532 would have banned teaching critical race theory and handed down a $5,000 fine to Arizona’s teachers, who are already the second lowest paid teachers in the nation.
Even though the bill was defeated last week, bills like SB1532 are hardly new—and hardly gone for good. Arizona’s bill, like similar bills in Texas, Idaho, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, was meant to have a chilling effect on the topics teachers discuss in their classrooms, and takes aim specifically at critical race theory, the academic concept that racism is intrinsic to the history of the United States and has led to the creation of many systems of inequity that we continue to grapple with today. For the education team at UnidosUS, these bills are a signal that many policymakers want to continue to whitewash the history of this nation, a nation that has many triumphs, but has a long history of oppression and bloodshed in the name of white supremacy.
It’s been a rough year at the state legislature in Arizona. But this bill added insult to injury, as we were already battling attempts at voter suppression, a budget that leaves out the bottom 80% of wage earners in the state, and conspiracy theories about the election that have made our home state a national laughingstock. Now our legislators are focused on banning critical race theory discussions in classrooms? Let’s focus on the real problem with education in this state—that it’s woefully underfunded and our kids don’t have equitable access to a high-quality learning experience.
These copycat bills are often drafted and lobbied by special interest groups. The war against critical race theory is spearheaded by conservative groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Heritage Foundation, who believe that students are being pressured to hate their country by learning what some say is an unfavorable view of the nation’s history. In Arizona, SB1532 was sponsored by Republican State Representative Michelle Udall, who introduced the controversial amendment right as the state legislature was hoping to wrap up its legislative session.
Advocates, teachers, and members of the Democratic caucus were shocked at the amendment, which felt like another attack on public school teachers at the state legislature, and during Teacher Appreciation Week to boot. In addition to the concern around teaching a transparent and accurate account of U.S. history, the amendment had some serious issues. It was extremely broad in interpretation and didn’t outline what actually constitutes a controversial topic. The amendment referenced race, ethnicity, and gender as controversial, but ultimately it would have been up to the Attorney General or a county attorney to decide on whether a teacher broke the law and could be fined up to $5,000—a figure that represents about 10% of the average teacher’s salary in Arizona. Another concerning provision of the amendment was that these topics had to be presented without deference to any one perspective. What exactly does that mean on issues like the Tulsa Race Massacre, Native American genocide, and the Holocaust? Do we need to give deference to the side of the oppressor in the name of what this amendment calls ‘diverse perspectives’? What does that actual conversation look like in a classroom? Are we supposed to defend the viewpoint of white supremacy?
A contemporary example of a “controversial topic” in Arizona is the idea that Joe Biden won the presidency or even is truly the current president. There is an ongoing audit of the Maricopa County elections spurred by conspiracy theorists at this very moment. If a history teacher states that Joe Biden was elected in 2020 as the 46th President of the United States, is that considered controversial, and do we need to devote class time to discussing the viewpoint of QAnon message boards or other opposing viewpoints?
Another part of the amendment that raised concern was meant to tie the hands of administrators when it comes to staff training on these topics. As Arizona’s classrooms become increasingly diverse, issues surrounding race and ethnicity in our schools are inevitable and we owe it to our students to make sure staff are thinking about the way systemic racism and implicit bias play out in our schools and the education system at large. Institutional racism and implicit bias have led to longstanding systems of oppression and inequality that affect every single facet of these students’ lives—from their access to health care, to the quality of air they breathe—and these systems absolutely have a bearing on their experience in our systems of education.
If these bills continue to sweep across the nation, our education system will continue to promote a version of our history that perpetuates and validates systems of oppression, stifling the progress we could make if we face our past in an effort to make a better future. We should uplift teachers for the heroic efforts they’ve made to keep our student population engaged and on track toward graduation during the pandemic. We should consider how to retain them with incentives like better pay, more professional development, and wrap around supports. Instead, some lawmakers are focused on further complicating and demeaning the profession of teaching, a career which requires years of schooling, additional certification, and continuing education for the duration of an educator’s career.
UnidosUS believes SB1532, and bills like it, are not only short-sighted, they are explicitly racist. While the bill was narrowly defeated in Arizona, the fight continues in other states, and we don’t expect the fight to end this year. We call on you to learn more about critical race theory and reach out to your state legislators and local teachers to open a dialogue. We cannot move forward if we do not learn from the truth of the past—not an edited and curated past. There is much to celebrate about our nation, and we can do that while taking a critical look backward while we work and strive for better.