PHOENIX - Teachers who promote "partisan doctrine" in the classroom would be automatically fired, and districts that allow it would lose state funding, under a proposed law approved Wednesday by a Senate panel.
The 5-2 vote by the Committee on Government Reform came after Sen. Lori Klein, R-Anthem, said she has received complaints about "political indoctrination in the classroom."
Klein said SB 1202 is designed to ensure students are given a balanced view on what they are being taught.
But the measure appears to be aimed largely at the Tucson Unified School District amid charges that, despite the decision to scrap controversial ethnic- studies courses, students are still being taught history and social studies in a biased fashion.
Making that case at the Capitol on Wednesday was Gabriela Saucedo Mercer, a Republican congressional candidate who has been a foe of the TUSD program.
"I have seen, firsthand, the damage done to our young students by partisans who pretend to be educators," she told lawmakers. "I have seen young students who, through classroom indoctrination rather than instruction, were incited to threaten and harass anyone who disagrees with their position."
Mercer acknowledged existing state law, passed largely with TUSD in mind, already makes it illegal to have programs that promote racial hatred. While the district denied its programs fit that definition, officials agreed to scrap the program last year amid threats by the state Department of Education to slash 10 percent of its funding.
But Saucedo Mercer said there are those in the district who are effectively skirting the ban by preaching and teaching some of the same messages. Mercer said that was proved when the Governing Board voted to end the ethnic-studies program to save the state aid.
"Somebody incited the children to take off from school," she said.
"If I was one of the educators, I would tell my children to stay in class because you're supposed to be in class," Mercer said. "The teachers had the power to stop the students. They did nothing."
Mercer, who hopes to be the GOP nominee to try to unseat U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, said it's one thing for university professors to spout political rhetoric. She said students at that age have the mental development to sift through what is being told them and make their own decisions.
"When you are targeting young, impressionable minds, starting from kindergarten, these children get lost," she said.
No one from TUSD came to the committee to testify on the measure.
John Pedicone, superintendent of the Tucson Unified School District, could not comment on the bill Wednesday, saying he was not familiar with all the details and the possible implications.
The TUSD Governing Board has yet to take a position on the bill, according to the district's legal counsel. Nor has the Tucson Education Association - the teachers union serving Tucson Unified.
Several legislators said they were troubled by the wording of the legislation, questioning whether the word "partisan" was too broad.
Klein said it is justified, saying it simply means promoting one point of view, whether Democrat or Republican.
"It doesn't matter," she said.
"Republicans or conservatives should not be promoting their point of view," Klein said. "Liberals, socialists, Marxists should not be espousing their views in the classroom."
Sen. David Lujan, D-Phoenix, said he fears unintended consequences.
"Any history, social studies teacher who asks their students to read books about any president of the United States could be determined partisan," he said.
Sen. Frank Antenori, R-Tucson, acknowledged the concern. He got committee members to strip the legislation of any penalty for use of partisan books.
And Klein said she is willing to look at narrowing the scope of what would get a teacher in trouble.
"This is not meant to deter a teacher from teaching social studies or history," she said. What is is designed to stop, said Klein, is "revisionist history."
Klein said that category includes La Raza studies, which she said encourages hatred toward the United States. She said the end to TUSD's programs did not end that.
"They then took this outside the classroom with demonstrations," Klein said, in a bid to preserve state funding.
Lujan, however, said he was more concerned about other programs that might be affected.
For example, if a science teacher raised the question of global warming, Lujan said, "that could be considered a partisan issue."
But Sen. Rick Murphy, R-Glendale, said, "As long as the teacher was tolerant of people having other views and not punitive towards them if they express those and try to persuade their classmates of that, and as long as it's relevant, I don't see a problem with that."
Reporter Alexis Huicochea contributed to this story.