State Rep. Mark Finchem wants to ban public and charter school teachers from spreading “controversial” political, racial and religious messages in their classrooms.

The Oro Valley Republican introduced House Bill 2002 in the Legislature last week. If it passes, teachers could face consequences as severe as losing their jobs for engaging in any “political, ideological or religious” advocacy or discussion with their students.

The bill would mandate that teachers follow a strict code of ethics and complete three hours of annual ethics training. The code would prohibit them from introducing any “controversial issue” unrelated to the class subject at hand and from endorsing, supporting or opposing any legislative, judicial or executive action.

In addition to prohibiting political, ideological and religious discussion, the bill would bar teachers from obstructing a military recruiter’s “lawful access” to campus and from blaming one racial group of students for the “suffering and inequities” experienced by another racial group.

Finchem said in the bill that spending time on political and ideological topics in school can lead to student “indoctrination” and that teachers should focus more on teaching students how to think, not what to think.

Differing motivations

Local educators interviewed by the Arizona Daily Star said they already teach students how to think, not what to think.

They said this makes them think Finchem proposed the legislation in response to the teacher-led #RedForEd movement, which resulted in a statewide strike in April that prompted Gov. Doug Ducey and the Legislature to increase teacher salaries by 20 percent over three years, and to restore $100 million of the $386 million in capital funding for education that Ducey had cut.

Finchem declined an interview request from the Star, but told The Arizona Republic the bill was a direct response to his constituents’ concerns about politics in school — not the #RedForEd movement.

Finchem, though, does consider #RedForEd and teachers’ support of it at school inappropriate and inherently political, according to the Republic article. He considers wearing a #RedForEd T-shirt at school, for example, a political act that shouldn’t be allowed.

“If there’s a political agenda behind it, leave it at home,” Finchem told the Republic. “Simple request.”

Rachel Johnson, the Arizona Educators United teacher representative at Mansfeld Middle School, disagrees with Finchem. She said the bill feels like a targeted attack on #RedForEd.

“I don’t understand why he would come up with this bill,” she said. “Any response to what teachers may say or may not say — I think they’re very threatened by us at this point,” she said of lawmakers.

Johnson, who has taught for 10 years, added that the majority of teachers she knows and works with don’t “indoctrinate” their students with their personal political and ideological views.

She, like most of her colleagues, doesn’t advocate for either side of potentially controversial issues when her students bring them up in class, she said. Instead, she helps her students research, compare and contrast the topic — so they can figure out how they feel about it on their own, with the evidence in front of them.

“As a teacher, I’m very careful about what I say in my classroom to my kids about politics,” Johnson said. “I’m not allowed to say that because I’m a public school teacher, I’m an employee of the government.”

State law already covers issue

State law already bars public and charter school employees from using school resources, including personnel, to influence the outcome of an election. Some districts encouraged teachers to not wear #RedForEd garb last election to avoid the perception they were trying influence the election, the Republic reported.

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But students won’t stop asking their teachers about controversial issues unrelated to class just because their teachers stop bringing them up, said Jason Freed, president of the Tucson Education Association.

Freed taught middle school for 15 years in the Tucson Unified School District before assuming his role at TEA. He thinks refusing to discuss controversial issues with students would reflect poorly on teachers.

“It is our job to provide kids with an opportunity to think creatively,” Freed said. “It’s our job to help them to analyze whether they think something is good and why, and if it’s not good, how they could make it better.”

Johnson agrees with Freed. She said her eighth-graders constantly ask her if they can look into topics, as a class, that would be barred under Finchem’s proposed code.

“I teach 13-, 14-year-olds kids,” Johnson said.

“They aren’t stupid. They know what’s going on … they bring up issues.”

Arizona adopting a code of ethics for teachers wouldn’t be groundbreaking. Many states, including New York, Idaho and New Hampshire have state-mandated codes of ethics for educators. National education organizations including the Association of American Educators and the National Education Association also publish codes for their members.

TUSD teacher and Arizona Educators United organizer Andrea Rickard said legislative efforts like Finchem’s remind her why she will continue to stay involved in #RedForEd efforts.

“I love teaching, but it’s super hard,” Rickard said. “And to have a Legislature in Phoenix that constantly devalues us? It devalues our kids. It’s very disheartening. But the thing that gives me hope are my kids that I teach.”

Contact reporter Brenna Bailey at bbailey@tucson.com or 520-573-4279. On Twitter: @brennanonymous

Reporter

Brenna explains how national, state and local K-12 education issues impact Tucson schools. She's a proud product of Arizona public schools. Send her news tips, story ideas and existential life questions at bbailey@tucson.com.