Opposition to equity plans leads to recall threats, legislation - AZEdNews
Sections    Thursday March 23rd, 2023

Opposition to equity plans leads to recall threats, legislation

Arizona Capitol On February 18, 2021. Photo By Lisa Irish/ AZEdNews

People who disagree with school districts’ equity plans have threatened to recall school board members, and legislation introduced last week would impact equity teacher training and classroom discussions.

For several years, schools in Arizona and nationwide have been analyzing student achievement, discipline data and demographics to develop equity plans to increase student and family engagement, reduce discipline disparities and close the achievement gap. With input from their communities they’ve put those plans into action and adjusted as needed along the way.

“I’ve been hearing from board members across Arizona that there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what equity actually means,” said Monica Trejo, a Tempe Elementary School District Governing Board member and vice president of Arizona School Boards Association’s Board of Directors.

Equity allows students to have fair access to resources, looks different for every district, and allows all students to begin their education at the same starting line, Trejo said.

ASBA’s Monica Trejo talks about equity

Dr. David Berliner says about 67 percent of student success is based on out of school factors and that includes food insecurity, access to health care, and being able to have safe communities, Trejo said.

“There’s a lot of different factors that play into our students in the classroom, and I think equity is really ensuring that we meet the needs of all those kids so that they can succeed in our classrooms,” Trejo said.

Responding to equity plan comments

School Governing Board members should stay focused when responding to public comments on their equity plans, said Chris Kotterman, director of governmental relations for Arizona School Boards Association.

“Work in specifics related to your school district. If people don’t have complaints specific to your district that you can look into, then there’s nothing you can do,” Kotterman said.

“Similarly, show them what your district is doing. Let them see the curriculum. Be transparent about what your teachers are doing,” Kotterman said.

“So much of what is going on right now is based on pure misinformation. But I’d say the biggest thing is to be very diligent about separating what might be actionable for you as a board member and what is just pure noise,” Kotterman said.

In response to the pushback some Arizona school board members have received about equity, Arizona School Boards Association released a statement last week.

Anti-racism‘s role

Many school districts and businesses have sought to implement equity, diversity, and inclusion practices, but anti-racism is a necessary first step, said Kim Graham, executive director of Arizona Educational Foundation.

“Equity, diversity, and inclusion are collective efforts; you can’t move a group of people forward around equity until they’ve done the individual work of anti-racism,” Graham said. ” Each one of us must understand how our own bias impacts our beliefs in order to be prepared for larger equity work.”

When people push back against anti-racism, most of the time it’s because they lack an accurate understanding of what the term means, Graham said.

“Anti-racism is not about making accusations or casting blame on a certain race of people. Anti-racism work is personal; it allows each individual to reflect on their own bias,” Graham said.

“Every single person on the planet has racist tendencies because we all have bias. Anyone who claims otherwise is not being honest about themselves. Anti-racism helps us become more aware of how bias shapes our opinions or beliefs about another individual based on race,” Graham said.

With the death of George Floyd, Arizona Educational Foundation noticed numerous organizations and school districts making public statements condemning racism and vowing to fight systemic oppression, Graham said.

“AEF also took a hard look at the programs and services we were providing and began exploring how we could support Arizona schools and districts with establishing or expanding their equity and anti-racism work,” Graham said.

Arizona Educational Foundation wanted teacher-voice at the heart of their work and convened a group of Arizona Teachers of the Year and higher education partners to begin exploring what educators would need in terms of training and content, Graham said.

The end result was the creation of a new program called “Our World,” where we envision a world where all stakeholders are involved in creating equitable and just environments, Graham said.

Our World is a scaffolded training program, tailored to the needs of educators and administrators. The program is customized to meet the specific needs of each school or district as every campus is unique in terms of how much equity training staff has received.

“Our Teachers of the Year facilitate the training, ensuring that content is geared toward educators. AEF is providing Our World to entire school districts as well as individual schools and training can be delivered over Zoom or in-person.,” Graham said. 

Legislation impacting equity plans

Last week, the Arizona House of Representatives passed an amendment to Senate Bill 1532 by House Education Chair Michelle Udall that would prohibit schools from requiring teachers to attend training on race, ethnicity or sex; and prohibit teachers from discussing controversial public policy or social issues that aren’t essential to course learning objectives.

“There have been a number of similar bills introduced in other states that are similar to SB1532 in an effort to combat teaching ‘divisive’ concepts that critics say ‘tries to make students feel bad,'” Kotterman said.

“Arizona’s bill goes further than others by banning ‘controversial topics’ but saying that ‘accurate portrayal’ of historical events is OK. It also allows county attorneys or the attorney general to enforce it, and imposes a $5,000 fine per violation,” Kotterman said.

“Clearly this has been incorporated as an issue for conservatives to rally around nationwide. Turning school district instructional content into a partisan issue is a bad idea for either side.,” Kotterman said.

“There’s a reason why the system is designed as it is. You don’t want school instruction changing significantly every time someone new gets elected to office in Phoenix. Because there will come a day when the people in charge at the capitol aren’t the people you agree with,” Kotterman said.

In response to the amendment to SB1532, Supt. of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman said “Instead of thanking our teachers during teacher appreciation week, today #SB1532 passed through the House. This bill would fine teachers 10%+ of their salaries for attempting to teach an inclusive and accurate portrayal of our history.”

“To provide our students’ an education devoid of accurate history is to fail them. An important part of education is the opportunity for our students to engage in rigorous debate and civil discourse in order to develop their own opinions and learn to respect the perspectives of others.,” said Morgan Dick, public information officer for the Arizona Dept. of Education.

“While teaching and learning about equity and anti-racism may at-times put individuals out of their comfort zone, our schools can display their commitment to our collective future by not shying away from our past. Instead, we must find opportunities within our shared history to choose empathy, respect, and care for others.,” Dick said.

Most recently, the Arizona Department of Education has been working to best leverage our federal relief and recovery dollars to provide long-term support to equity, diversity and inclusion work both within the department and our schools, Dick said.

“By investing in strategic initiatives like funding of laptops and hotspots, supporting the Office of Indian Education, and supporting educator retention with professional development training we are making long-term investments that support all of Arizona’s schools and students,” Dick said.

Save Our Schools Arizona also weighed in on the bill.

SB1532 “sends a terrible message to teachers,” Kotterman said.

“There is a reason why ultimate accountability for curriculum lies with the locally elected school board — so voters within that school district can remove boards that aren’t doing what they want,” Kotterman said.

There are processes in place, including recall, to address the problem of board members who are not serving the community, Kotterman said.

“But recall thresholds are high for a reason. Recalls are for officials whose conduct is so egregious to the voters that it can’t wait until the next election. And if you can’t get enough voters to agree with you, well, that says something,” Kotterman said, noting that part of this strategy is to make being a board member so uncomfortable that people decide not to run again.

“I think going down this road is a huge mistake for the Legislature. If this passes, they think this will be the end of it, but it won’t,” Kotterman said

“Once they’ve signaled that they’re willing to get involved if enough people scream loud enough, there will be no end to the things their constituents want them to dictate to schools, and there’s no way to put that genie back in the bottle,” Kotterman said.

It’s really unfortunate when a school or district knows equity training is important, but they’re pressured or even threatened by community members or even people outside of their community to abandon it, Graham said.

Arizona Educational Foundation has had districts and individual schools seek Our World training, only to have to cancel because of outside pressure,” Graham said.

“Racism isn’t going away. As a nation, if we have any hope of combating racial oppression, the best place to situate the work of anti-racism is in education,” Graham said.