Rep. Kelly Townsend says she won’t vote for the K-12 education portion of the proposed budget unless the legislature passes her plan to crack down on politicking in the classroom by teachers, which she wants as a response to the #RedForEd movement that culminated in a historic teachers’ strike last year.
Townsend, a Mesa Republican, said her new proposal has some significant differences from one she pushed earlier in the legislative session.
Her original measure, House Bill 2015 would have barred employees of public schools from school time or resources to espouse political ideology or religious beliefs. Teachers who violated the law would have faced fines of up to $5,000. It also allowed for those teachers to be fired.
The House Education Committee approved HB2015 in February. But the bill languished after that, never receiving a hearing in the House Rules Committee or in the full House of Representatives. Democratic lawmakers, public school advocates, the Arizona Education Association and others lambasted Townsend for legislation that they said was an attack on teachers and payback for the #RedForEd movement, which she vociferously opposed.
The Senate Appropriations Committee revived the proposal when it amended a similar plan onto another of Townsend’s bills in early April. That legislation, House Bill 2032, passed out of the committee, but stalled afterward and never reached the Senate floor.
Unlike either of those bills, Townsend’s new proposal would impose fines on school districts, not on the teachers who violated the law. Each school would be allowed one warning per school year before being fined.
Teachers would be barred from using “school contacts or privileges to promote partisan politics, sectarian religious views or propaganda of any kind,” and may not use their positions for personal gain “through political, social, religious, economic or other influence.”
Townsend rejected the accusations that she’s targeting or punishing teachers, or trying to restrict their free speech rights.
She said the language came from the Arizona School Boards Association’s website, and is used by many school districts, as well. Though teachers must agree to abide by the policy, Townsend said, it is sometimes ignored.
“It’s already there, and yet we are having issues,” Townsend said. “I’m not satisfied that that’s enough. So, it needs to go into statute.”
Chris Kotterman, a lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association, said Townsend’s proposal largely mirrors the ASBA policy that’s in use at numerous school districts. But he said ASBA opposes enshrining it in state law and believes the proposal would lead to a surge in legal complaints, which come with financial costs, whenever parents view something that a teacher said as partisan or sectarian.
“We don’t believe that districts would be found in violation, but we would be obligated to defend every accusation in court. Currently, we can and do handle this via the employee discipline process,” Kotterman said.
Townsend said there won’t be a surge in complaints if teachers aren’t violating the policy. Under her proposal, the attorney general or county attorneys would be the ones to bring legal action over violations. Kotterman said the process would still likely be complaint-driven by parents and others.
HB2032 cleared the Senate Rules Committee on Tuesday. It has not yet been scheduled to be heard in the full Senate. Townsend said she will seek to add her new language to bar politics in the classroom to that bill.
Townsend’s ultimatum could be problematic for legislative Republicans and Gov. Doug Ducey as they try to round up votes for the budget deal they recently forged. Republicans have a 31-29 advantage in the House and can’t afford to lose a single vote, unless they can get Democratic support for the K-12 education portion of the budget.
The budget agreement faces more problems in the Senate, where at least five Republicans – Paul Boyer, Heather Carter, J.D. Mesnard, Tyler Pace and Michelle Ugenti-Rita – have pledged to vote against it unless certain conditions are met.