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Teachers' Political Talk Issue Heats Up By: Jessica Coomes
Arizona Republic | Monday, March 05, 2007

Troy Hyde's ears perked up in a college class when his professor called President Bush an idiot, and he said he was stunned when another professor said suicide bombers are reasonable people.

"I thought, 'Holy cow. I can't believe this guy just said that,'" Hyde recalled.

To muzzle instructors who champion political views in classrooms, a Republican state legislator has proposed a law that would punish public school teachers and professors for not being impartial in the classroom.

If the idea were to become law, teachers said they might shy away from teaching controversial issues out of fear of being misunderstood and punished.

Senate Majority Leader Thayer Verschoor, R-Gilbert, wrote the bill that has drawn a stream of criticism and support since it received preliminary approval in a Senate committee this month.

"In theory, it wouldn't affect me at all," said Joe Thomas, a high school government teacher. "But . . . what could a student take from my room and take what I say out of context? He-said/she-said becomes a teacher on a soapbox."

Verschoor said his bill would protect students who are afraid to clash with instructors.

"This is absolutely about academic freedom. It allows students to practice their First Amendment right without fear of a poor grade because of it or any retaliation because they disagree with the instructor," Verschoor said during a recent Senate committee hearing.

Hyde, a junior business administration major at Arizona State University, said that if students want good grades, they have to absorb what their professors teach, which can include professors' opinions. Hyde said Verschoor's bill is important.

"You might have your own opinions, but don't use a public university where people and taxpayers are paying you to teach," said Hyde, chairman of the Arizona College Republicans. "Don't use (the classroom) as your soapbox and think you're put there to teach me why you think the president is an idiot. That's not your job."

Shying away from topics

Teachers said that if the bill became law, they would think twice about controversial lessons because they would not want to risk being misunderstood.

For example:

• Thomas, who teaches history and government at Skyline High School in Mesa, wondered how the proposed law would affect his lesson about President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Thomas said some students could argue he does not talk enough about business-oriented aspects of the plan. Others might think he should talk more about the job-oriented aspects.

• Rep. Jackie Thrasher, D-Glendale, who is a music teacher at Lookout Mountain Elementary School in Phoenix, said she might second-guess herself before playing Tchaikovsky's music in class. The composer was gay, and a student who knows that might not want to hear his music, she said.

• A teacher who assigns a high school history class to write a persuasive essay about why the U.S. military should or should not be in Iraq could be seen as promoting one view or another because Verschoor's bill is so broad, said John Wright, president of the Arizona Education Association.

Verschoor said his bill would target a teacher who said, for example, that Bush is the best president ever and former President Clinton was the worst.

"If a teacher in a class . . . wants to talk about the war in Iraq, they are more than welcome, but they can not advocate their opinions," Verschoor said during the hearing.

Indoctrination worries

Over the past few years, activist David Horowitz, president of Students for Academic Freedom, has led a movement to stop indoctrination in classrooms. He said teachers and professors should not use their positions to impress opinions onto students.

Hyde said Arizona College Republicans support that "equal playing field" on campus.

"Inside the classroom, it's a place for learning and not partisan politics," Hyde said. "That goes for either side. . . . We see the indoctrination on either side."

Verschoor told those who attended the hearing that his bill is about "allowing more freedom in the classroom and more free discussion back and forth."

Teachers said they do not see indoctrination in classrooms.

"If this is going on, we would've addressed it years ago," said Thomas, who also is on the Arizona Education Association board of directors. "This is a case where you have a solution in search of a problem."

All teachers come to the classroom with their own set of experiences, Thrasher said, and politicians cannot and should not take those away.

One of Thrasher's former students, Vaughn Hillyard, a 15-year-old sophomore at Thunderbird High School in Phoenix, said he and his classmates like to ask their teachers about their political beliefs.

Most of his teachers will not say what they think, he added, but some do.

"It's nice to know where they're coming from, so we have it in the back of our heads" when the class is discussing controversial issues, such as the Iraq war, he said.

Hillyard said that he does not like the idea of Verschoor's bill but said that teachers who talk about their opinions too often are out of line.

Smashing free speech

The proposed law would highlight a "new era of censorship," said Alessandra Soler Meetze, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona.

Politicians are not censoring education by pulling books off shelves, she said; instead, they are stifling classroom discussion about controversial topics.

"It certainly does raise significant free-speech concerns for teachers," she said.

Verschoor said that his bill does not stifle free speech and that teachers still would be allowed to discuss their political beliefs outside the classroom.

Furthermore, the Arizona Education Association's Wright said teachers' speech in the classroom is limited by policies written by governing boards. Local policies often forbid teachers from influencing an election, Wright said.

He draws a distinction between a proposed "chilling and overreaching" state law and a local board policy that a teacher agrees to follow when hired.

"It's always troubling to see legislation written that attempts to address an issue that schools and school districts already address," Wright said.

Thrasher questioned whether someone like her, a teacher who serves in public office, would be affected by this bill. She said her mere presence in the classroom could be construed as advocating for a political candidate.

Verschoor disagreed: "They simply wouldn't be affected by this bill unless they said, 'Vote for me.' "

Voices on the measure

I find it hard to believe our instructors can't be creative and yet remain neutral. They certainly can and encourage discussion from both sides."

- Sen. Thayer Verschoor, R-Gilbert, who introduced a bill that would stop teachers and professors from espousing political opinions in classrooms

I certainly didn't know there existed a problem, and I honestly don't believe there is. This legislation is not necessary."

- Joe Thomas, history and government teacher at Skyline High School in Mesa

In my limited experience, you very rarely find a teacher that comes out and says, 'I'm a conservative,' or 'I'm a Republican.'"

- Troy Hyde, 21, junior business administration major at Arizona State University and chairman of the Arizona College Republicans

"It's OK when they give their opinions but not when they do it too much."

-Vaughn Hillyard, 15, sophomore at Thunderbird High School in Phoenix

We are not there to cause our students to think a certain way. We are there to cause our students to think."

- John Wright, president of the Arizona Education Association

You wonder, 'Gosh, I don't know if I can say that or not.' It inhibits your ability to teach."

- Rep. Jackie Thrasher, D-Glendale, music teacher at Lookout Mountain Elementary School in Phoenix

The classroom is precisely where these kinds of important controversial debates should be taking place."

- Alessandra Soler Meetze, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona

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