A new grassroots group in Gilbert that aims to stop politicking in the classroom and to go after teachers who do so hopes to pick up support for doing the same in other districts.
Educate Gilbert is a local offshoot of the much larger Purple for Parents group that formed out of frustration with the six-day teacher walkout last spring.
“This is not an effort to bash Red for Ed,” said group founder Julie Brown, the mother of a kindergartener. “The idea is no matter what you believe, it has to stay out of the schools.”
Red for Ed is a movement that spread to Arizona in the spring, prompting teachers to don red T-shirts and march on the state capitol and walk out of their classrooms.
The walkout shut down schools statewide and spurred Gov. Doug Ducey to ink a budget plan that boosts teacher salaries 20 percent by 2020.
Brown said school districts generally have been lax in enforcing the state statute that prohibits the use of school property, resources or employees to influence the outcome of elections.
She said had Gilbert Public Schools put its foot down, there would be no need for her group.
Spokeswoman Dawn Antestenis said Gilbert Public Schools District and its administrators are well aware of Arizona State Statute 15-511 and its requirements.
To that end, Superintendent Shane McCord sent a letter to district employees in May and another letter on Aug. 7 about this, she said.
Brown said McCord’s letter in May asked employees not to wear Red for Ed T-shirts, but the district did not take a stand on whether wearing the shirts or other Red for Ed efforts violated the law or district policy.
The district’s policy bans employees from wearing T-shirts with a logo or advertising and from promoting partisan politics.
Brown said the group’s mission is especially important now given Red for Ed leaders’ push on the Invest in Ed ballot initiative.
The referendum measure proposes an income-tax surcharge on people earning more than $250,000 annually and couples earning $500,000 or more to fund teacher salary increases and school maintenance.
A Superior Court judge currently is weighing multiple challenges aimed at keeping the surcharge off the ballot.
Educate Gilbert opposes the initiative, saying it would be Arizona’s largest permanent tax increase ever and claiming it would drive away business, stunt job growth and derail Arizona’s economic recovery.
Brown said it was unclear whether the teacher walkout was politically motivated but the ballot measure is “purely more political.”
She said teachers have been showing their support for the Invest in Ed initiative by wearing vests to school, launching the effort Aug. 11.
Symbolically, the vest is much like the red T-shirts worn on Wednesdays to show support for education, she said, even though the vests have no logos or words and are not even the same color.
“Teachers went to school with vests, all kinds of strange vests,” Brown said. “It was kind of their quiet way to say, ‘We support Invest in Ed.’
“There is a picture of a teacher who constructed a vest out of paper and wrote all over it. They are constantly pushing the limit, and we are here to say, ‘Don’t try to push the limit.’”
She said the construction-like vests are a distraction and unprofessional and those who wore them could be violating the district dress code.
Brown said that even without verbiage about the ballot measure, the vests convey a political view.
“If all of a sudden on Fridays, everyone is wearing a vest, especially when it’s 112 degrees, someone may ask, ‘What’s up with the vest?’ and that prompts a response, ‘Oh, this is because I support this.’”
The group stated that based on a number of factors – including pre-promotion of the event by Arizona Educators United and parents reporting vests worn on their campuses – are ample evidence of “a clear intent on behalf of the participating employees to communicate a political message on school grounds.”
Brown also questioned if teachers who post their support of the ballot initiative on social media are doing it using school technology and on school time.
She noted that many of the photos of teachers wearing vests were posted while school was in session.
“If they are taking time out of their schedule to do these things, I think it takes away from students,” Brown said, adding:
“Teachers are like any other employee and have First Amendment rights. But they need to do it when they are a private citizen. If they leave the school and wear a vest, that’s fine. But don’t bring it to school, it affects students and can cause conflicts with parents.”
The group sent out letters of concern to all 80 Gilbert District school principals, the superintendent and governing board, Brown said, adding she has not heard back from anyone yet.
She said if the vests are worn again, it will be documented and reported to the state Attorney General for violation of the state statute. She said group members will meet individually with school board members to talk about this issue.
Educate Gilbert’s website lists activities to watch for, such as political petitions posted or distributed in schools and teachers who engage their students in conversation about any political efforts or positions.
It also includes steps on how to document and report a violation.
Joshua Buckley, a Mesa government teacher and chairman of Arizona Educators United, which gathered the signatures to put the initiative on the November ballot, has no issue with the group.
“We are citizens of a free democratic society and able to do that sort of thing,” said Buckley, who also is head of the Mesa teachers union. “I applaud anybody who wants to get involved in their school board and community. If we can have open, honest conversation about education and education funding we have more in common than don’t.”
He discounted Brown’s comment that there was a rumor of a teacher walkout planned for October.
Brown said if that were to happen, she and other parents would pull their children out of the public school system.
“It’s the farthest thing from anyone’s mind,” Buckely said. “I don’t foresee that happening. What would we accomplish? There’s no legislative body in session.”
He said the teacher strike in the spring was because the state Legislature was working on the budget.
As for teachers wearing a vest to school, it seemed pretty benign, Buckley said. The idea was pushed on social media by a group of Tucson teachers, he added.
He said he can see a parent knowing the meaning behind the vest-wearing, but he doubted students would.
“A teacher could say we just decided to wear it,” he said. “Teachers don’t need to explain their attire to the classroom.”
He said his 12th-grade students at Red Mountain High School are looking at the propositions on November’s ballot, but there is no discussion regarding whether they are good or bad.
“Conversations like that are not for students,” he said. “If they asked me what I thought about the new Star Wars movie, I would tell them. But as a government teacher, I don’t have those conversations with my students.”
Brown said Educate Gilbert has more than 100 members, including teachers and that other school districts want to mimic the group’s efforts.
“This effort is not about going against teachers in a mean way,” she said. “Because they are government employees and responsible for our students, yes, we do have more say. I never thought I would be this active in it but I am standing up for my child and others.”