Teachers who promote "partisan doctrine" in the classroom would be automatically fired and districts that allow it would lose state funding under the terms of legislation approved Wednesday by a Senate panel.
The 5-2 vote by members of the Committee on Government Reform came after Sen. Lori Klein, R-Anthem, said she has received complaints about "political indoctrination in the classroom."
Klein said SB 1202 is designed to ensure that students are given a balanced view on what they are being taught.
But the measure appears to be aimed largely at the Tucson Unified School District amid charges that, despite the decision to scrap controversial Ethnic Studies courses, students are still being taught history and social studies in a biased fashion.
Making that case at the Capitol on Wednesday was Gabriela Saucedo Mercer, a Republican congressional candidate who has been a foe of the TUSD program.
"I have seen, first hand, the damage done to our young students by partisans who pretend to be educators," she told lawmakers. "I have seen young students who, through classroom indoctrination rather than instruction, were incited to threaten and harass anyone who disagrees with their position."
Mercer acknowledged that existing state law, passed largely with TUSD in mind, already makes it illegal to have programs that promote racial hatred. While the district denied its programs fit that definition, officials agreed to scrap the program last year amid threats by the state Department of Education to slash 10 percent of its funding
But she said there are those in the district who are effectively skirting the ban by preaching and teaching some of the same messages. Mercer said that was proven when the governing board voted to end the Ethnic Studies program to save the state aid.
"Somebody incited the children to take off from school," she said. "If I was one of the educators, I would tell my children to stay in class because you're supposed to be in class. The teachers had the power to stop the students. They did nothing."
Mercer, who hopes to be the GOP nominee to try to unseat Congressman Raul Grijalva, said it's one thing for university professors to spout political rhetoric. She said students at that age have the mental development to sift through what is being told them and make their own decisions.
"When you are targeting young, impressionable minds, starting from kindergarten, these children get lost," she said.
No one from TUSD came to the committee to either testify on the measure or dispute any of Mercer's contentions. But several legislators said they were troubled by the wording of the legislation, questioning whether the word "partisan" was too broad.
Klein said it is justified, saying it simply means promoting one point of view, whether Democrat or Republican.
"It doesn't matter," she said. "Republicans or conservatives should not be promoting their point of view. Liberals, socialists, Marxists should not be espousing their views in the classroom."
Sen. David Lujan, D-Phoenix, said he fears unintended consequences.
"Any history, social studies teacher who asks their students to read books about any president of the United States could be determined partisan," he said. "And when you're putting a teacher's livelihood on the line, I think you're really chilling their ability to educate their students."
Sen. Frank Antenori, R-Tucson, acknowledged the concern. He got committee members to strip the legislation of any penalty for use of partisan books.
And Klein said she is willing to look at narrowing the scope of what would get a teacher in trouble.
"This is not meant to deter a teacher from teaching social studies or history," she said. What is designed to stop, said Klein, is "revisionist history."
Klein said that category includes La Raza studies which she said encourages hatred toward the United States. She said the end to TUSD's programs did not end that.
"They then took this outside the classroom with demonstrations," Klein said, in a bid to preserve state funding. "They are continuing with the efforts to influence young minds."
Lujan, however, said he was more concerned about other programs that might be affected.
"The language here is so broad that you're going to stifle the education environment and kids' ability to learn," he said. "Let's say they're talking in science (class) and a teacher throws out ‘global warming.' That could be considered a partisan issue."
Lujan said it should be up to students to decide if they accept the concept.
But Sen. Rick Murphy, R-Glendale, said that is not an issue.
"As long as the teacher was tolerant of people having other views and not punitive towards them if they express those and try to persuade their classmates of that, and as long as it's relevant, I don't see a problem with that," he said. And Murphy said some of it comes down to context.
"If they're talking about what's relevant to the class, I wouldn't see a problem with that," he said. "But if they're talking about it in math, I would have concerns."