Responding to concerns of unnecessary intrusion, Gov. Doug Ducey signed legislation Wednesday to preclude students from being asked certain questions on assessments without first getting parental consent.
Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, said the new law is not aimed at intruding on legitimate back-and-forth questions between teachers and students. And he said that even queries about personal habits are OK as long as they’re part of the teaching experience.
What’s not OK, he said, are the written surveys conducted by schools, sometimes on behalf of outside groups or even the federal government, that seek personal information about the students and their families.
The law is an outgrowth of complaints by some parents about what some saw as intrusive questions.
Sophia Cogan told lawmakers about a test prepared by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers that was administered to her son in 2014 at a Scottsdale school, part of a national assessment.
“My son remembers being asked his religion and if he rode the bus to schools,” Cogan said.
“I was furious,” she said. “Who knows what else they asked him?”
Aside from what Cogan said is unnecessary prying, she said PARCC has had problems with security, meaning the information her son — and others — provided in their answers.
The new law has a litany of questions that may not be asked without prior written parental consent.
Issues range from political and religious beliefs to sexual behavior and whether anyone in the family owns a gun. Even questions about whether a family has an emergency plan in case of disaster would be off-limits without a parent’s OK.
The law also has teeth.
It allows any parent to complain to the attorney general or county attorney who can sue the school to comply with the requirements. And if a school doesn’t cure the problem it is subject to a penalty of up to $500 for each violation.
“There seems to be this notion that children belong to the state, that they’re not the responsibility of parents,” Finchem said Wednesday.
“That’s fine for Hillary Clinton,” he said. “But the truth is we were acknowledging Nature’s God and the fact that parents have been granted parental authority over their children, not the state.”
Mark Barnes, lobbyist for the Arizona School Administrators Association, testified during hearings on the measure he understands its intent. And he even agreed that some issues might not be appropriate.
But Barnes said he’s concerned that the language of the measure could interfere with legitimate educational needs.
“What I’m worried about is some of the impediments this may create to the use of what I would commonly call a ‘survey’ to elicit responses from students that help a teacher teach and help the administration put together a school that best meets their needs,” he told lawmakers.
And it could be even more basic than that.
He pointed out that the legislation defines a “survey” to mean any “instrument that investigates the attitudes, behaviors, beliefs, experiences, opinions or thoughts of a pupil or group of pupils.” He said that could even involve something as a teacher asking students “which of these three books would you like to first work on next week?”
“You can’t ask that under this law without first sending that question home and getting a response from the parents,” Barnes said.
Rep. Doug Coleman, R-Apache Junction, had a more real-world concern.
Coleman said he teaches law.
“When I get to the Eighth Amendment, I might actually ask the kids, ‘Do you believe in the death penalty?’” he said.
“We talk about that in relation to cruel and unusual punishment” which that amendment specifically prohibits. “I’m just trying to get them to think.”
Finchem, however, said the bill that made it to Ducey’s desk is not the same as what he initially introduced. And he said it is crafted in a way to differentiate between the kind of questions that Coleman wants to ask, versus what Finchem sees as intrusions for no legitimate educational purpose.
“This is not intended to get in the way of you teaching a class and having an open discussion with your students,” Finchem said. “It’s not until you end up with a ‘survey.’ “
The key, said Finchem, is the requirement in the final version of the legislation that a survey be an “instrument” to run afoul of the law. That means a physical item, whether written or electronic.
More to the point, he said a teacher that simply asks a question of a class cannot run afoul of the new law.
Still, Finchem said, while such questions and discussions may not be covered by the new law, that does not mean they are necessarily appropriate. For example, he said, a discussion of politics and current events should not lead to inquiries about how a student might vote or the political affiliation of parents.
“That question in a classroom is wholly irresponsible and unacceptable,” he said.
Ditto, he said, of a teacher asking students whether they live in a home where there is a firearm. Finchem said that won’t get a teacher or a school into trouble — at least not under this law.
“You would probably hear about it,” Finchem said. “If I had a child who came home and said, ‘My teacher asked if we had guns on our house,’ I’d be pretty upset about it.
Finchem said he built in an exception for the regular Arizona Youth Assessment Survey conducted by the state’s Criminal Justice Commission which does ask very personal questions like the use of marijuana and alcohol and sexual activity.
He said that survey provides needed tools for law enforcement to deal with problems. Anyway, Finchem said, the results are aggregated, with no individual information collected.