Feb 1, 2023 - News

Critical race theory debate may have "chilling effect" on Arizona teachers

Illustration of a Black teacher's hand erasing the word "history."

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Arizona enters Black History Month with no official critical race theory ban but with a political landscape that could still restrict how teachers build curriculum around race.

Why it matters: Pushes for so-called CRT bans in states with conservative legislatures, including Arizona, have led some educators to scrap once-noncontroversial Black history lessons over fears of firing and social media shaming, Axios' Russell Contreras reports from a new RAND Corporation survey.

The intrigue: Teachers in these states told researchers they didn't teach CRT, but changed lessons over concerns they could be accused of doing so, Ashley Woo, assistant policy researcher at RAND, told Axios.

  • "It just becomes so exhausting that, yes, I know there are (teachers) that are, like, 'I'm not even going to touch that. I'm not even going to acknowledge it's Black History Month because I'm worried it might be heard different than what I said,'" Arizona Education Association president Marisol Garcia told Axios Phoenix

Catch up quick: CRT is a graduate college-level framework, rarely taught in grade school. But Republicans have been using it as a broad term for history or other lessons they view as denigrating races, casting blame or teaching that people are inherently oppressive or oppressed.

State of play: Former Gov. Doug Ducey signed a budget bill in 2021 prohibiting teachers from using history to make any ethnicity feel guilt or shame for past events.

Still, the debate over if and how teachers should discuss race in classrooms has dominated school board meetings and statewide elections.

  • Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne defeated incumbent Kathy Hoffman last year by running on an anti-CRT platform.

By the numbers: A quarter of all teachers nationwide reported that limitations placed on how teachers can address race or gender have influenced their choice of curriculum materials or instructional practices, the RAND survey found.

  • That percentage includes teachers who live in red states where new restrictions have been imposed and in states where no limitations have been introduced, highlighting the overall anxiety from teachers.

The latest: The House Education Committee voted on party lines to advance a new anti-CRT bill Tuesday.

  • "The subjective interpretation of the language and enforcement of this type of law makes it very dangerous," Rep. Nancy Gutierrez, D-Tucson, a teacher at Tucson High, said before casting a "no" vote.
  • "The lack of clarity inevitably causes a chilling effect where teachers wishing to steer clear of any discipline will avoid covering topics and discussing issues of great social and historical value," she said.

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