Billy Gerchick never hesitated before assigning his English students a pair of short stories last week by Ernest Hemingway — “Soldier’s Home” and “Hills Like White Elephants” — despite their controversial themes.
But a bill being sponsored by a powerful East Valley lawmaker could give Gerchick, a teacher at Scottsdale’s Coronado High School, reason to pause in the future. It could keep him from assigning the classic works because of their subjects: war and abortion, respectively.
Senate Majority Leader Thayer Verschoor, R-Gilbert, is the driving force behind a proposal that seeks to quiet teachers who openly endorse or champion political and social issues in the classroom.
Verschoor said the proposal is a reaction from constituents who describe a culture in which teachers are often not fair or impartial when it comes to expressing political viewpoints.
The bill gives students the power to speak out against outspoken teachers, he said. And it holds teachers, who are paid with state tax dollars, accountable for what they say.
But teachers, students and other critics fear the measure would suppress free speech in the classroom. Likewise, they worry the measure would drive teachers out of Arizona — or out of the profession — for fear of being punished.
The bill, SB1542, would forbid teachers working in their official capacity from endorsing or opposing political candidates or expressing opinions about social issues. Teachers could face a $500 fine or lose their jobs if found guilty.
“I think this is a major problem. I just received a letter from a constituent complaining that a student was told to write a letter, as part of their class, to chemical companies complaining about air pollution,” he said. “They say there’s not a problem, but they do this sort of stuff all the time.
He then went on to list other complaints from the public, including textbooks that support illegal immigration or are too politically slanted. As a lawmaker, Verschoor said he is trying to hold schools accountable for what their teachers say.
“Since I introduced this bill, I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and tell me stories about their own high school and college experiences,” he said. “I think this kind of thing happens all the time and just gets ignored by the media.”
Since introducing the measure, Verschoor’s bill has also garnered a lot of local and national attention. It has been talked about on radio shows, including that of conservative Sean Hannity of ABC Radio Networks and Fox News Channel, as well as being a hot topic of discussion on numerous cable news shows.
But East Valley teachers and students say they worry about the bill’s unintended consequences, such as silencing thoughtful and engaging classroom discussions.
“State mandated tests and other fears in the profession are hindering teachers in the classroom already,” Gerchick said. “What you’ll find if this passes is that teachers will lose ethos and credibility in the classroom, and lose their connection with students.”
If the measure becomes law, Gerchick said he would reconsider assigning stories such as “Hill Like White Elephants” or “Soldier’s Home” because of their themes.
He and other teachers and students say opinions stories like those are bound to incite are important to education. Many teachers express opinions in class in order to spark the type of lively discussion students need to get interested and involved, they said.
“I’ve had teachers from all over the political spectrum, and I think it helps you understand the issue,” said Puja Umaretiya, an 18-year-old senior at Chandler High School.
She and other students there agreed that muzzling teachers would restrict them too much and hinder students’ educational experience and growth. Several students contacted by the Tribune said they eagerly anticipated going on to college, where professors are likely to express stronger opinions.
While some students expect their instructors to have a point of view, local teachers said they know where to draw the line.
That line exists between expressing and opinion and ordering a student to think a certain way in order to pass a class or receive a good grade. For example, teachers agree that a student should never be penalized for disagreeing with them.
“Most teachers know that they are here to teach, not preach,” said Lora Matzen, head of the math department at Chandler High School.
She, like other teachers, said she understands the concerns of state lawmakers but spoke about the need to leave those issues up to local schools and local school boards.
Still, there are some students who believe biased political statements are a problem in schools today.
Allison Berger, 17, said she is constantly at odds with her science teachers.
Berger said she believes in creationism, which holds that all life was created by God and which does not acknowledge evolution as a scientific fact.
Likewise, the state’s top administrator thinks there is a problem in Arizona schools.
“I believe there are abuses going on in the classroom. But the solution is not to silence controversial speech, but to go in the other direction and make sure all sides are equally represented and let the students make up their own minds,” state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne said.
But the measure still has a long way to go before it becomes law. It needs the approval of the Senate Rules Committee before it is voted on by the entire Senate.
That committee’s chairman, Sen. Jay Tibshraeny, R-Chandler, has not yet scheduled the bill to be heard.
Students, teachers respond
“It’s almost like they’re trying to sanitize the entire experience.” — James Cappuccio, 17, Chandler High School senior.
“We are responsible for developing critical thinkers, not computers.” — Carol Gould, Chandler High social studies teacher.
“This is a horrible act of censorship.” — Billy Gerchick, English and journalism teacher at Coronado High School.
“I think bills like this can be good from time to time because it makes us talk about these types of issues.” — Janet Vickers, English teacher at Coronado.
“My teachers always tell us to think for ourselves.” — Dawn Wood, 17, senior at Westwood High School in Mesa.