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Political Bias in the Classroom By: Daniel Scarpinato
Azstarnet.com | Monday, February 12, 2007


Before leaving his job at Tucson High Magnet School last year, John Moritz says, he was an anomaly: a conservative Republican.

Not that it mattered. Moritz says he scrupulously kept his his views out of the classroom — a trait he says was not universal among his fellow teachers.

Now a group of Republican lawmakers is questioning whether there's a place for political partisanship in school.
 
As part of a national movement to bring objectivity to the classroom, the Legislature is considering putting an "Academic Bill of Rights" into law that would penalize instructors from kindergarten through college who use their podium to espouse political views.
 
Smack-dab in the center of Democratic-leaning Tucson, Moritz claims that out of 150 teachers he was one of maybe five who were open about their GOP tendencies.
 
"I was definitely in the minority," he said.
 
"I just don't talk politics in my classroom," said Moritz, now running his own education-related business. "But we have some teachers that have absolutely no filter at all."
 
It's an issue that is sure to spark debate about objectivity, First Amendment rights, censorship and classroom bias.
 
"We should be teaching students how to think, not what to think," said Senate Majority Leader Thayer Verschoor, R-Gilbert, the bill sponsor.
 
"You don't need to be in a science class and have someone telling you whether Bill Clinton is or isn't a great president," he said. "It's just not the place for it."
 
If the bill passes and avoids Gov. Janet Napolitano's veto, teachers could ultimately face the loss of their teaching certificate for showing political bias.
 
Verschoor said the bill, which would apply to public-school teachers at both traditional and charter schools, will eventually be broken into two — one to deal with elementary through high school teachers and another to address college professors.
 
The bill states a teacher who is "working in an official capacity" can't "advocate one side of a social, political or cultural issue that is a matter of partisan controversy" or take positions on legislation or candidates. A draft of the bill says a teacher could face three hours of training. A college professor might face the same, or a fine of $500.
 
Bias in the classroom isn't necessarily a Democratic or Republican issue. With topics like war and peace, and evolution versus creationism, in the public discourse, there's a potential to sway the curriculum either way.
 
Nevertheless, expect the debate over monitoring teachers' views to break down along party lines, both advocates and opponents say. Conservatives generally believe that academia leans to the left. And liberals are leery of such restrictions, fearing teachers will be muzzled.
 
The bill before the Legislature is one being pushed by conservative writer David Horowitz. Author of the book "The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America," Horowitz is on a national push to institute such laws.
 
"This is cutting-edge for Arizona," he said in an interview. "Unfortunately, there is a movement to indoctrinate students in our K-12 system."
 
The issue of politics in the classroom became a hot Tucson topic after liberal activist Dolores Huerta visited Tucson High last year. In the thick of student walkouts over immigration, Huerta delivered a heated speech on topics such as gay marriage, abortion, the war in Iraq — and on top of that, dropped her notorious comment "Republicans hate Latinos."
 
State Rep. Jonathan Paton, a Tucson Republican, brought the issue before the Legislature.
 
"To me, the biggest issue is not really that which they're saying in the classroom as much as, if the students disagree with the teachers' opinion that they get a lower grade because of it," said Paton in a telephone interview from Iraq, where he is on duty as an Army intelligence officer.
 
Paton is undecided on Verschoor's bill but says he wants some protections for students from being penalized for disagreeing with a teacher.
 
Chris Woolf, who has two children in local schools, says the law sounds like just another mandate on what she considers to be underpaid teachers.
 
"I think it's micromanaging," said Woolf, a Democrat. "Doesn't it go against the freedom to speak your mind?"
 
Woolf said she has never had to complain about a teacher espousing his or her views.
 
"I'm talking to my kids about what I believe at home," she said. "And it's OK if someone reinforces that at school or challenges that."
 
But former teacher Moritz said he thinks safeguards are needed. "The vast majority don't bring politics in," he said. "But you have the fringes on the left and the right who are very vocal."
 
Moritz is still adviser to Tucson High's Teenage Republican Club and says he helped form that club after "I had students complaining that their teachers were ridiculing them for their views."
 
But the Arizona Education Association, the state teacher union, questions that claim.
 
"I've seen no evidence that it is a problem," said AEA President John Wright. Wright says local districts are dealing with complaints just fine and says the bill Verschoor is introducing is "blatantly unconstitutional."
 
Wright said he worries about where lawmakers will draw the line.
 
The issue becomes even more heated on the college level and has been a perennial discussion, says Wanda Howell, chairwoman of the University of Arizona faculty.
 
"It essentially assails academic freedom," she said. "The whole notion of higher education is based on unbiased free inquiry, and when you start designating topics and points that are off limits you're restricting the whole purpose of higher education."
 
Still, Verschoor is committed to making Arizona the first state to pass such a law.
 
"I'm willing to work with folks on language to protect your freedom of speech, but at the same time the students have the right to have the freedom not to be captive to your personal political beliefs," Verschoor said.
 
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