This piece was published on the Arizona Republic on March 21st, 2022.
Changing the Arizona Constitution is the wrong way to address critical race theory
Opinion: It's a bad idea to add voter-protected language to the constitution that could have major unintended consequences for Arizona schools.
A bill that has largely gone unnoticed until this week seeks to put the controversy over the teaching of critical race theory to a vote by Arizonans.
Regardless how one views CRT, the proposed constitutional amendment by Arizona legislators is a flawed plan that should be abandoned.
House Concurrent Resolution 2001 – on the agenda Tuesday before the Senate Education Committee – would refer a constitutional amendment to the ballot for the Nov. 8 election, making it voter-protected and placing a host of prohibitions and restrictions on what schools, colleges and universities can do.
HCR 2001 is legislative overreach
HCR 2001 would ban students, teachers, employees or even job applicants from “making a statement of personal belief in support of … Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” beyond the U.S. 14th Amendment and prevent state agencies from implementing federal programs that do anything beyond the express language of the 14th Amendment.
For example, if a federal education program required disaggregated data collection, the state would likely not be able to do it.
The legislation would also prevent schools from discussing equity policies that have arisen despite the 14th Amendment – essentially restricting any discussion of race and ethnicity to only what the amendment says. It leaves punishment for any violations to be prescribed by the Legislature.
Whether or not one believes prohibiting conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion in schools is either wise or necessary, there are practical matters that make this the wrong way to go at the issue.
Hasty changes in the 2000s still plague us
First, adding this kind of language to the state constitution is a bad idea. If passed, it could only be amended at the ballot – making it extremely challenging to undo or amend. Lest we forget, constitutional and voter-protected statutory changes made hastily in an anti-immigrant fervor in the early 2000s still plague us – “English Only” in classrooms, prohibitions on in-state tuition for DACA students come to mind.
It is also unwise to add to the constitution voter-protected language that could have problematic unintended consequences for instruction in Arizona.
The College Board announced earlier this month in a statement of principles that high schools that ban “required topics” in their Advanced Placement classes could lose AP designations. Though it is unclear exactly how this might play out, many parents choose their child’s school based on AP course availability.
In addition, AP courses are a key component on which schools are evaluated (for example, by U.S. New and World Report). Other states are going down this path now – we should see how it plays out before placing language in our constitution that will be nearly impossible to remove. It’s just not worth the risk.
Don't like policies? Give local control a chance
Second, it creates a chilling effect on free speech. This rhetoric is coming from the same people who protested the idea of “politically correct” speech on the grounds that speech could not and should not be curtailed just because it makes some people feel threatened or uncomfortable. This point was recently made by Justice Samuel Alito, one of the most conservative members of the Supreme Court, in this opinion.
Third, it violates local control and parent choice. Arizona parents benefit from “open enrollment” policies that many other states don’t have. They can choose a school, district or charter, in any location for free.
At the same time, local school board members are elected officials, tasked with the fiscal responsibility and accountability to their local community. If parents don’t like any choice the school board makes, they can “vote with their feet” and leave the district (or charter), or they can “vote the bums out” in the next election.
Attempting to dramatically influence very locally derived hiring policies and curricular decisions is legislative overreach.
Placing language in the Arizona Constitution makes it virtually impossible to adjust or improve, regardless because it goes too far or doesn’t go far enough. That’s just bad policy, especially when the unintended consequences could harm Arizona’s families.
Rebecca Gau is executive director of Stand for Children Arizona