Educators are frustrated over the debate about “critical race theory” in conversations around public education in Arizona.
“They are trying to drag people out of public schools,” said Beth Lewis, executive director of Save our Schools.
On March 9, the Arizona Department of Education announced in a press release that it was launching the Empower Hotline, which is a phone number any parent can call to report “inappropriate public school lessons that detract from teaching academic standards.”
The press release said these include lessons on race or ethnicity, as well as promoting gender ideology, social emotional learning, or inappropriate sexual content.
Lewis said the name Empower Hotline, which bears the same adjective as the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs), is no coincidence. The ESAs allow individual students to receive educational funding from the state to attend private school or be homeschooled. She believes the hotline is meant to drive people to use the vouchers and take their children out of public schools.
Marisol Garcia, president of the Arizona Education Association, said Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne and a small but vocal minority of parents are disrupting the relationship between parent and teacher for the goal of “dismantling public education.”
“The intent is to disrespect educators and public schools, so that that parents will say, ‘You know what, I’m going to homeschool, I’m going to take them to a private school, you guys are trying to hurt my kids,’” Garcia said.
Nationally, the issue of critical race theory in public schools has caught fire, particularly in Florida, where Republican
Gov. Ron DeSantis has proposed legislation to ban it from public schools and universities.
In March, Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs vetoed Senate Bill 1305, sponsored by Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, which would have prohibited a public school from “providing or allowing any person to provide instruction that promotes or advocates for specified concepts relating to race or ethnicity.”
“It is time to stop utilizing students and teachers in culture wars based on fearmongering and unfounded accusations.
Bills like SB1305 only serve to divide and antagonize,” Hobbs said in her veto letter to Senate President Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert.
“We’re not too far behind Florida,” Garcia said. “If Governor Hobbs were not elected, I fear that we would have been worse than Florida today.”
On Republican Horne’s campaign website, the first step in his plan as superintendent of public instruction was to “fight critical race theory,” which he called a “false history.” Horne said he contrasts the definition of critical race theory to his own values, which he said is based on individualism.
“We’re all individuals,” Horne said. “We’re all brothers and sisters under the skin. What matters about us is what we know, what we can do, what is our character, what our ability to appreciate beauty; and race is entirely irrelevant.”
Horne said teaching it divides people into “oppressors and oppressed.”
“The oppressors, which could be young kids, are supposed to feel guilty 24 hours a day; people are told they’re oppressed,” Horne said. “They feel like ‘Why should I try because the system is against me?’ which is not true.”
Horne said critical race theory is being taught “across the board” in schools, but Rodrigo Palacios, who teaches social studies at Tempe High School, said he has not heard of it being taught.
“I think most people understand that critical race theory is not taught in K-12 schools. anywhere in the country, it just does not exist, it is a set of theories that is based on you know, and that is taught at the law school and the graduate level. These are not things that we even have time to teach in the classroom,” Palacios said.
Lewis said Horne is “out of touch” from what is being taught in classrooms. She said children should be learning about the realities of the country’s history and said that children can handle tough topics and learn from them. She said efforts to prevent this kind of learning are “fear mongering” and said people are trying to divide communities.
“I think it’s like this puritanical set of ideals that just doesn’t describe the reality of the America I know. And the kids that I see in the classroom today, like they’re ready to learn real things,” Lewis said.
In terms of learning about history, Horne said the only way to do it is just teaching the hard facts. He said teaching about slavery and Jim Crow laws is necessary. But Horne said problems arise when these issues start being taught with race as a primary factor and separating people by oppressed and oppressors.
“A teacher’s role is to teach academics and they’re not to take advantage of a captive audience to push their own personal ideology and if they do, I think it’s unprofessional and they should talk to about it,” Horne said.
Garcia said her approach was about policies of the past and less about people. She said she wants to instruct her students so they can grow as people and a country.
“There have been horrible policies in the past that have been based on excluding people from institutions – we’re in a different place now,” Garcia said. “We will continue to get better and there is a way to fix it, and that is through understanding what happened, and then understanding that policies can be changed.”
Horne said there could be disciplinary action against teachers, principals, and superintendents who teach lessons that “detract from academics” like “critical race theory” and it affects a student’s overall letter grade. He said that it is just a proposal.
Palacios, who is in his 20th year of teaching, said ADE is “ignoring everything else that actually matters in the classroom.”
He said it is an uphill battle to convince younger teachers to stay working at public schools because they could go work at private schools and make more money. He said he has seen younger colleagues leave teaching in Arizona.
“I cannot blame them for making that decision,” Palacios said. “When you have a superintendent of public instruction who is so abrasive and so frankly anti-teacher, then you have the consequences that you have.”