By Terri Jo Neff |
At a time when one-fourth of all educator positions are vacant statewide, one Arizona school board has voted to reduce the number of university students pursuing education degrees who can do their on-site training in their district.
Washington Elementary School District serves a diverse population of K-8 students in north central Phoenix and east Glendale. It is the largest elementary school district in Arizona with 32 in-class schools and one online school, and has a highly promoted districtwide LGTBQ-acceptance policy.
For more than a decade, several degree students from Arizona Christian University (ACU) have done their student teaching and other practical coursework at one of WESD’s campuses. But in recent weeks, Tamillia Valenzuela has twice urged her fellow four WESD board members to end the district’s arrangement with ACU and another area university.
During a Feb. 23 board meeting, Valenzuela expressed concern that ACU’s mission prioritizes the teachings of Jesus Christ, values which she does not believe are “aligned with” WESD’s priorities. She said she was “really disheartened” to see district staff was asking to renew its long-running arrangement with ACU.
Valenzuela, who describes herself on the WESD website as a bilingual, disabled, neurodivergent Queer Black Latina, cited no documented examples of how any WESD student, parent, or teacher has been negatively impacted over the last decade by the personal Christian values of any ACU student teacher.
However, the board voted 5 to 0 to end its arrangement with ACU at the completion of this school year. About 16 ACU students are currently involved with WESD.
Although several of the board members expressed concern with what they see as ACU’s rigid anti-LGBTQ philosophy, it was Valenzuela’s comments that were interpreted by many parents as pushing “no Christians welcomed” agenda for WESD.
Two WESD parents spoke to AZ Free News on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation against their children; both provided documentation of having students currently enrolled in the district.
“Clearly Ms. Valenzuela believes having Christians involved at Washington Elementary’s schools is unacceptable, whether those people are from Arizona Christian University or simply Christians in general,” one parent said. “Ms. Valenzuela actually said she has personal concerns with feeling ‘safe’ within WESD due to the presence of devout believers in Jesus Christ. What’s next? A religious litmus test for public school employees and teachers?”
The other parent found Valenzuela’s comments about values to be highly hypocritical.
“Tamillia wants to deny student teaching opportunities to ACU students because of her personal dislike of the university’s religious tenets,” the parent noted. “She cannot point us to one incident in all of these years in which any university student shirked their duties toward any WESD student. Yet Tamillia openly wants to discriminate against Christians. Really, who has the values problem?”
At a Jan. 12 board meeting, Valenzuela led a similar attack on the District’s practice of having students from the Grand Canyon University (GCU) social work program serve as interns at various WESD campuses. GCU, based in Phoenix, is one of the largest private Christian universities in the world.
Valenzuela alleged that GCU as an institution has acted in a harmful manner to a low-income community, and thus is not a good philosophical fit for WESD to partner with on social work and mental health. She also expressed concern with having Christian organizations affiliated with the district.
“I am wondering if there’s other options available, one so we are not actively engaging with an institution that’s causing harm and also so we can have options that are not based on a certain faith,” she said.
Lisa Mora, WESD’s assistant superintendent, pointed out there are a limited number of accredited social work university programs for WESD to work with. Many of them are offered through private colleges, and if district officials wish to continue prioritizing social and emotional services for students, “these universities have the ability to work with us directly.”
Valenzuela was the only “no” vote on renewing the relationship with GCU.
Terri Jo Neff is a reporter for AZ Free News. Follow her latest on Twitter, or send her news tips here.