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Arizona critical race theory bill on the shelf as Legislature adjourns

Arizona teachers will apparently not face new rules this coming school year on how they can teach about race and ethnicity because a Scottsdale Republican lawmaker was absent Friday on the last day of the legislative session.

But Rep. Joseph Chaplik (R-Scottsdale) told Capitol Media Services that House leaders knew he would not be there on Friday. He said if they were interested in the fate of the measure they would have scheduled the necessary final vote on Wednesday or Thursday.

“This is not on me,” he said. “They didn’t want to put it up for a vote.”

House Majority Leader Ben Toma (R-Peoria), however, said legislative rules required Senate Bill 1412 to get a final reading first in the chamber of origin, which was the Senate. That did not occur until Friday.

But it remains unclear how much earlier, if at all, the Senate could have acted.

Chaplik said he’s not buying the argument there was no way to advance the bill.

“Leadership is so unorganized with planning and execution,” he said.

And Sen. J.D. Mesnard (R-Chandler), who sponsored the measure, said the whole thing has left him “frustrated.”

The bottom line is this makes the second year in a row that lawmakers have been unable to enact what has been labeled a restriction on critical race theory.

SB 1412 sought to restrict what some have argued are lessons that promote hate or feelings of shame in students. Both the House and Senate had given previous approval on party-line votes.

But there were some last minute changes needed to get final approval. And that meant there needed to be another roll-call vote in both chambers — the vote that the Senate did on Friday, the last day of the session, but did not occur in the House because of Chaplik’s absence.

That will force Mesnard to try again in 2023 — assuming he is reelected and the Republicans maintain their control of both the House and Senate.

The legislation has its roots in what has been a talking point by some Republicans on so-called “critical race theory,” based on the claim that majority students are being taught to hate their own race or made to feel guilty about things those from their own race have done in the past.

Critical race theory, however, is actually an academic concept usually taught and discussed at the college level, looking at issues of how racism occurs and how even current attitudes are based on historical practices. And despite politicians, including in Arizona, running for office with a promise to halt it in public schools, there are only scattered reports of anything close to that being taught here.

Mesnard’s proposal never mentioned critical race theory.

Instead, it spelled out rules about teaching certain things, like one race or ethnic group is “inherently morally or intellectually superior to another race or ethnic group.”

It also mentioned lessons about whether an individual, by virtue or ethnicity is inherently racist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously, as well as that any individual because of race or ethnicity “bears responsibility or blame for actions committed by other members of the same race or ethnic group.”

That caused concern among Democrats who argued the measure effectively would whitewash the teaching of history to the point where students would be presented with facts but fail to understand the context. And Sen. Christine Marsh (D-Phoenix) said it even could result in teachers, fearing discipline for violating the law, will simply choose not to give certain lessons or even use certain books because it may cross the line and make students feel shame or guilt about their race or their ethnicity.

“Are they so fragile that they can’t even have a conversation, learn about or read about racism in this country?” she asked.

“This bill will stifle what kids read and learn even though few to no teachers are actually, actively going around trying to make any student feel bad about their race,” Marsh said. “And they are not so fragile that they can’t separate racism that they see in history and in contemporary society from their own identities.”

Mesnard, however, said foes of the measure are ignoring what he says is the key part of his legislation: It prohibits instruction that “promotes or advocates” for any of the concepts.

“If, indeed, all of these things, the idea of promoting or advocating these thing is offensive, and I believe, personally, contrary to American values, then you should be voting ‘yes,’” he said.

And Mesnard said the legislation even spelled out that nothing in the legislation precludes identifying and discussing “historical movements, ideologies or instances of racial hatred or discrimination,” down to the point where it even lists things like slavery, Indian removal, the Holocaust and Japanese-American internment.

“We were very clear about what is OK and what is not OK,” he said.

But Sen. Martin Quezada (D-Glendale) said he feared that the legislation will effectively sanitize the teaching of history to the point where students will not understand how and why certain things occurred.

“We know that the teacher’s role in a classroom should be a lot more than simply telling facts, numbers and dates,” he said.

“The teacher’s role in the classroom should be putting all of that information, all of the facts, all of the numbers, all the dates into context and teaching children how to think critically about all of those pieces of information,” Quezada continued. “When we don’t allow them and don’t teach them how to think critically, we narrow their world view.”

More to the point, he said that it may be impossible to teach certain subjects without making students uncomfortable, something he said crosses a line he believes the legislation draws.

“It should be the normal, human reaction to history to feel some discomfort over some of the things that have happened in our history,” Quezada said.

“There have been horrible, horrible things that have happened in our history: mass destruction of life and liberty, all under America’s banner,” he said. “That stuff has happened in our past.“

And Sen. Stephanie Stahl Hamilton (D-Tucson) said there’s nothing wrong with that.

“Sometimes living with a little bit of guilt and feeling really, really sorry is the motivator to not repeat and to seek a different way,” she said.

Republican lawmakers adopted virtually identical language in 2021.

Only thing is, they included it in one of their budget bills. That was voided when the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to include provisions that do not deal with state spending.

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