A handful of bills introduced ahead of the 2019 legislative session are already stirring up tensions in the education community, leaving some to wonder if the Capitol will again be awash in red.
Reps. Kelly Townsend of Mesa and Mark Finchem of Oro Valley have introduced proposed legislation that gets at several qualms they and their fellow Republicans had with the Red for Ed movement in 2018.
Finchem’s House Bill 2002 would require the State Board of Education to adopt an educator code of ethics explicitly prohibiting politicking in public schools. In a written statement, he said the bill is a response to calls from parents to stop politics in the classroom.
Arizona School Boards Association lobbyist Chris Kotterman said it does not appear to be a genuine effort to improve the teaching profession, but rather a list of grievances. Meanwhile, Phoenix New Times reported on January 3 that the language of the proposed code is nearly identical to that of the Stop K-12 Indoctrination campaign sponsored by the conservative David Horowitz Freedom Center, which bills itself as the School of Political Warfare.
And Townsend has so far introduced four education-related bills, two of which are drawing a lot of attention as they appear to be retribution for the Red for Ed movement.
HB2017, which Townsend said is a direct response to the movement and teachers’ decision to strike last April, would prohibit public schools from shutting down except during pre-approved breaks and holidays, or in the event of a variety of dangerous situations, from natural disasters to an invasion. And HB2018 would require the attorney general to investigate any policy, procedure or other official action taken by a school district governing board or any district employee that lawmakers allege violates state law.
The reaction online was swift, including calls for another show of force from educators.
“Clearly the legislators were not listening,” Red for Ed organizer Rebecca Garelli wrote on Facebook in response to HB2017. “Perhaps we need to make our voices even louder.”
Dozens of educators and their supporters responded, slamming Townsend and calling for renewed action.
Garelli told the Arizona Capitol Times that they’re frustrated by where these lawmakers have put their focus – on punitive measures rather than funding a workable solution. And she said the Red for Ed movement will definitely return to the Capitol this year.
What that might look like, she doesn’t yet know.
“If our elected representatives are incapable of finding a bipartisan solution to the funding crisis, then every option is on the table,” she said. “It’s not up to me. It’s up to the members. No options are off the table.”
Townsend has also filed HB2015 to prohibit school district employees from using school resources to promote a political or religious ideology, and HB2016 to prohibit employees from harassing, intimidating or harming parents, students and their colleagues. There are laws already on the books to cover each of those offenses.
Whether Townsend’s proposals will lead teachers to defy her and walk out of classrooms again, that’s not for her to say either.
“They’re going to have to make the decision if they’re going to do that again to the people of Arizona,” Townsend said.
But Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, who will join her on the House Education Committee, said Townsend and Finchem are sending a dangerous message, potentially leaving educators feeling like they’ve been backed into a corner.
“These bills send the message that if you become vocal and if you become an advocate for your profession, then we will fight back with laws that will directly impact you economically,” Bolding said. “This sets a very bad precedent.”
He said legislators should not be running retaliation legislation against members of the public, especially those whose perceived crime was to participate in the political process.
The future of these bills is in no way secure, though. Townsend and Finchem will have to win favor in the House where the partisan split is now just 31-29 in favor of Republicans. And that’s if they can first get their proposals out of the Education Committee where they are likely to be heard.
Republicans do hold a greater statistical advantage there with eight Republicans and five Democrats serving on the committee; the split was originally 7-4. But Bolding said he hopes Rep. Michelle Udall, who will chair the committee, and House Speaker-elect Rusty Bowers won’t even “allow these bills to see the light of day.”
If they do, he said the education community will surely return to the Capitol tenfold.
“Once you awaken individuals in our community about policies that are directly affecting them, it’s hard to turn off that switch,” he said.
Udall was not immediately available for comment.
Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas, who has stood beside leaders of Red for Ed, said the movement last year was about so much more than teacher pay. He said teachers want to be in their classrooms, but if they have to pressure legislators on their own turf again, they will.
“We are in a system that’s been starved for so long that it’s at a breaking point,” Thomas said. “We saw some steam released last year. The legislators and the governor should really think long and hard about whether they want that to be a recurring event or not.”
If legislators thought the movement was a one-time phenomenon, Thomas said they are either blind, deaf or “just unwilling to see the crisis that they have been perpetuating.
Red for Ed first took shape online after Noah Karvelis created Arizona Educators United on Facebook. The platform attracted thousands of supporters within hours.
Still, if you’d asked Karvelis whether that would lead teachers to strike just a few months later, he would have told you that was crazy. Now, he said the movement will mobilize again if that’s what teachers believe they have to do.
“We certainly don’t want to go through that again,” he said. “It’s taxing. It’s difficult. It’s one of the hardest things anybody’s ever had to do in the classroom or outside of it. The simple way to end this is to come up with bipartisan solutions.”
Teachers feel like their voices have been entirely disregarded because this is the conversation ahead of the legislative session, Karvelis said, not the issues they believe to be vital.
Bolding said the Democratic caucus is working on legislation that would address those issues – increased funding for education, money for school infrastructure, a fix for the disproportionate student-counselor ratio and more.
“I would hope that my colleagues on the other side of the aisle will back up their campaign rhetoric with actual action,” Bolding said. “The public will judge legislators not by what they say during the election cycle but what they actually do during the legislative session.”