School Districts Respond To Mask Mandate Controversies As Outsiders Are Accused Of Political Manipulation

School Districts Respond To Mask Mandate Controversies As Outsiders Are Accused Of Political Manipulation

By Terri Jo Neff |

The Vail School District abruptly cancelled its Tuesday night board meeting after nearly 200 people showed up to push for an end to the district’s mandatory mask policy for staff, volunteers, and 13,500 students.

Deputies with the Pima County Sheriff’s Department were called to the Vail Education Center when dozens of people refused to leave the building once the meeting was cancelled. Officials noted that the crowd exceeded the building’s adjusted COVID-19 occupancy limit and the majority of the attendees refused to abide by the district’s mask-wearing and social distancing policies.

Some among the crowd then decided to elect a new school board based on nomination offered and a vote taken right in the lobby of the building. The first act taken by the “new board” was to do away with the mask mandate.

Several participants claim the election was legal due to the fact they followed Robert’s Rules of Order. However, several attorneys have come forth to point out Arizona has strict open meeting laws and election laws, thus making whatever vote took place Tuesday night irrelevant.

But while the Vail District’s board meeting never got started Tuesday night, the governing board of the state’s largest district heard argument for and against its plans to phase out mask mandates in the coming days.

Mesa Public Schools announced the mask phase-out shortly after Gov. Doug Ducey rescinded his executive order which had required the wearing of masks for its staff, volunteers, and 63,000 K-12 students. Masks are current strongly recommended” but not required for students when they are outdoors, but are mandatory on school buses and all school facilities including gyms.

District officials will announce Friday whether the mask mandate will be dropped next week on Mesa buses. In the meantime, staff continue to promote physical distancing and personal hygiene practices despite the fact current district COVID-19 policies are more restrictive than those being recommended by many in the science and medical communities.

The Maricopa County Public Health Department “strongly recommends the use of face coverings” by students and staff in schools and on buses or other public transportation, according to its website, but does not mandate such use. Those policy decisions “will be made by the local school or school district authority,” according to the department.

A board meeting of the Dysart School District in Surprise also experienced a larger than usual turnout for its Wednesday night meeting. At one point district personnel locked the doors from the outside to stop people from entering the building when occupancy and social distancing capacities were met, and local police officers provided security.

One school board attorney told AZ Free News that knowingly allowing more people into the building than legally allowed puts district officials and employees at risk of being held personally, even criminally, liable if anyone is injured.

That appears to be one of the reasons behind the Tanque Verde Unified School District’s cancellation of its Wednesday evening board meeting after reports that a similar mask “protest” was planned. A statement from the district announcing the cancellation noted officials first conferred with the Pima County Sheriff’s Department before determining the district would “be unable to conduct the meeting safely.”

With district officials from Vail to Tanque Verde to Surprise and beyond aware of reports of future the mask-mandate protests, the question is whether they will move their public meetings to larger venues, such as cafeterias and gymnasiums, instead of cancelling meetings.

Since Tuesday night, nearly 100 parents in the Vail District have used social media to express their frustration about losing the opportunity to express their opinion to the board.  At the same time, others wrote of concern that so many parents lack a basic understanding of how school districts are governed.

They say that lack of awareness makes those less-informed parents vulnerable to manipulation by people from outside the district who have political agendas. And they point to self-identified members of the upstart Patriot Party of Arizona who do not live in either Surprise or Vail who posted about their involvement in trying to force entry into those board meetings.

Rally Draws Support For Police, Minority Unification Amid Push For Student Scholarship Expansion

Rally Draws Support For Police, Minority Unification Amid Push For Student Scholarship Expansion

By Terri Jo Neff |

Many attendees at Monday’s “Unification Rally” outside the Arizona State Capitol held signs which read “Unity – Protect and Educate Our Children” while speakers talked about bringing together law enforcement officials and religious leaders to build better relationships between peace officers and minorities.

The event also served as a show of support for Sen. Paul Boyer’s pending Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA) legislation which supporters say will bring an end to the school to prison pipeline by expanding Arizona’s student funding program to an additional 470,000 children between preschool and grade 12.

An ESA allows an eligible child to receive credit for a large amount of the government education funding that would have been paid to the student’s public or charter school. Those funds can then be used toward private school expenses, including tuition, counseling, tuition, and other necessary costs.

SB1452 cleared the state Senate back in mid-February on a 16 to 14 party line vote, but has been stalled in the House after being amended in March by the Ways & Means Committee. Monday’s rally about the importance of educational options for parents who want additional educational options for their children highlighted Boyer’s ESA legislation.

Less than 10,000 students currently utilize ESAs, but speakers at the rally believe expanding eligibility criteria will allow nearly 726,000 children to have the option to receive an ESA. Among SB1452’s supporters are the Barry Goldwater Institute for Public Policy Research, AZ Families for Home Education, and the American Federations of Children.

Currently there are 256,000 students eligible for the ESA program based on one of eight criteria, such as children with disabilities, children with a parent on active duty in the Armed Forces or whose parent was killed in the line of duty, children who are wards of the court with a permanent guardian, and children attending schools or school districts with a “D” or “F” rating.

According to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee (JLBC), Boyer’s bill as amended by the House would expand eligibility to children who qualify for a free or reduced-priced lunch program, as well as about 63,000 students who are the children of veterans. That would make approx. 726,000 preschool to grade 12 students eligible for ESAs under at least one of the criteria.

The JLBC estimates the participation rate of the newly eligible students at around four percent, which would boost ESA enrollment by 1,926 students in Fiscal Year 2022, 3,877 in FY 2023, and 5,982 in FY 2024. Based on that increased participation, the Arizona Department of Education expenses would increase by $1.7 million, $3.6 million, and $6.4 million in those years, respectively.

However, JLBC noted the overall effect on the General Fund would be annual savings of $7.1 million to $9.4 million during the same three-year period. Those savings do not include estimated increases in annual administrative expenses of $2.2 million to $4 million.

Boyer’s bill has not been placed on a House agenda for a Third Reading as of press time.

Senators Kelly, Sinema Vote Down Amendment Prohibiting Discrimination Against Asians in College Admissions

Senators Kelly, Sinema Vote Down Amendment Prohibiting Discrimination Against Asians in College Admissions

By Corinne Murdock |

Both Arizona Senators voted down an amendment to prohibit discrimination against Asian Americans in higher education.

The amendment was introduced by U.S. Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and John Kennedy (R-LA) under Senate bill 937, the “COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act.”

Specifically, the amendment would prohibit federal funding for any college or university that discriminates against Asian-Americans during recruitment, applicant review, or admissions. The act itself seeks to prosecute hate crimes against Asians motivated by COVID-19. It proposes to implement an online hate crime reporting database and expand “culturally competent” education campaigns.

A study on universities and colleges from the 1990s to 2015 found that those who banned affirmative action programs saw their numbers of Black, Hispanic, and Native American minorities decline significantly. The findings implied that race heavily impacted admissions.

On the U.S. Senate floor, Cruz asserted that universities are actively discriminating against Asian Americans currently. He explained that the DOJ’s decision to drop the lawsuit against Yale University for discrimination against Asian Americans spurred this amendment.

“[T]his amendment is straightforward. It targets the ongoing discrimination that is being directed against Asian Americans by colleges and universities across the country, including preeminent institutions such as Yale and Harvard, which are denying admission to qualified Asian-American applicants in favor of underrepresented minority groups,” said Cruz. “The U.S. Department of Justice was suing Yale for its discrimination against Asian Americans until the Biden Administration dismissed that lawsuit.”

In follow-up remarks, Kennedy concurred with Cruz’s assessment. He said this was one baby step in the right direction, but that Congress needs to go further.

“Now, I know [these major universities] think they know how to discriminate in the right way, but discrimination is discrimination,” asserted Kennedy. “At one of these universities in 2013, Harvard admitted that if it admitted Asian Americans purely on the basis of academic achievement, it would have doubled the number of Asian Americans. Now, this is wrong; it is contemptible, it is odious.”

In opposition to the amendment, the sponsor of the bill – Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) – claimed that federal law already prohibits discrimination. She said that turning away Asian American applicants based on the number of Asian American students already at an institution of higher education was a longstanding, integral component of diversity initiatives within admissions policies.

“This amendment is a transparent and cynical attack on longstanding admission policies that serve to increase diversity and provide opportunity to students of color in our institutions of higher learning,” said Hirono. “This amendment also threatens colleges and universities with the loss of federal funding for pursuing or using policies that our courts have upheld repeatedly.”

The amendment to the bill failed, with 49 yeas and 48 yeas – 11 under the required minimum of 60 yeas for adoption.

Both Kelly and Sinema are in support of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act as a whole.

Kelly condemned the surge in hate crimes against Asian Americans, or Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI), in February.

“As folks virtually gather to celebrate the #ChineseNewYear, let’s remember that, for some, this joyous celebration for Chinese Americans is being marred by the rise in hate crimes against our AAPI communities. We can’t let it go unanswered,” wrote Kelly.

Sinema hasn’t addressed the Asian hate crimes on her accounts.

The COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act passed the Senate earlier this week. It now heads to the House for consideration.

Corinne Murdock is a contributing reporter for AZ Free News. In her free time, she works on her books and podcasts. Follow her on Twitter, @CorinneMurdock or email tips to corinnejournalist@gmail.com.

Arizona Legislature Fails This Year To Pass Bill Critical To Student Learning

Arizona Legislature Fails This Year To Pass Bill Critical To Student Learning

By Dr. Thomas Patterson |

The Arizona legislature failed this year to pass a bill that would have required third grade students to be held back if they failed to learn to read adequately. The unsuccessful bill uncovered some unhappy truths about the state of education.

Third grade is recognized as a critical progression point for reading proficiency. Students through third grade are taught to read, after which they are expected to read to learn. Those unable to do so suffer a lifelong handicap in today’s knowledge economy with enormous economic and social consequences.

In 2019, 60 percent of Arizona’s third graders failed to meet our own reading standards. Unfortunately, nothing really new here.

Yet this ongoing failure is largely ignored by educators. There is little sense of urgency. Almost all of the failing third graders are routinely promoted to fourth grade, as if nothing of consequence had happened.

Here’s the worst of it. These dismal scores were recorded in the year before Covid, during which teachers’ unions refused in-person instruction. There was never the least evidence that school children suffered from Covid nor spread it.

Nevertheless, teachers received full pay and benefits. Ignoring “the science”, the unions insisted their work was far too dangerous.

No matter how much their students and families suffered, they stubbornly persisted. We’ll be years assessing the educational damage caused by their intransigence. Third graders mostly losing a year of reading instruction will be especially hard hit.

Yet even under these circumstances, government educators fiercely resisted the notion of a do-over, as they had before. They claimed that holding students back would cause more to drop out and result in worse outcomes. (Harvard research suggests the opposite).

Admittedly, holding back all non-reading third graders would be logistically difficult, although the long-term benefits to students and heightened accountability for educators would be well worth it. But educators’ real objection is that thousands of students in remediation would shine a bright light on their failure to perform what is arguably their most important duty: teaching basic literary skills to students who need them the most.

American education, with achievement levels lagging behind most other industrialized nations, has badly needed an overhaul for some time. The irony is that we know how to teach children effectively.

The Success Academies in New York, KIPP schools nationwide, Arizona charter schools and others have shown that it is a lie to pretend that disadvantaged students are “ineducable.“

Thomas Sowell found that New York City charter schools achieved proficiency levels several times that of district schools housed in the same building. Tuition scholarship programs in Arizona, DC and elsewhere have provided life-changing opportunity for thousands of children who otherwise would not have been so fortunate.

But in spite of their successes, school choice programs have been met with implacable hostility  from an educational status quo that sees only threats, not opportunities to better serve. Some teachers’ unions even demanded further charter school restrictions as a condition for returning from their Covid vacation.

The result has been that critical reforms have been stymied. Tuition scholarship programs and charter schools, though growing, still have waiting lists. The default option for too many students is still the failing school closest to their home.

But the Covid debacle could be the springboard to wide sweeping reforms. Parents noticed the callous disregard for their children’s welfare from those they trusted. Some parents were shocked by the pervasive ideological indoctrination in the zoom lessons they observed.

They became comfortable with homeschooling and other options that put them more in charge of their children’s education. Not coincidently, Education Savings Accounts, funds made available to parents for any educational expenses in lieu of public school attendance, have been introduced in over twenty legislatures this year.

The fallout from our failing schools is enormous. We have produced a generation too many of whom are uneducated, entitled and angry. They are enamored with socialism and disdainful of American culture, including free speech. Moreover, income inequality has been widened by the very education activists so vexed by it.

Covid is our best chance to finally open up and modernize the structure of American education. Viva la Revolución!

Dr. Thomas Patterson, former Chairman of the Goldwater Institute, is a retired emergency physician. He served as an Arizona State senator for 10 years in the 1990s, and as Majority Leader from 93-96. He is the author of Arizona’s original charter schools bill.

Ducey Bans Government Entities From Asking About Vaccine Status But Businesses, Schools, Health Providers Can

Ducey Bans Government Entities From Asking About Vaccine Status But Businesses, Schools, Health Providers Can

By Terri Jo Neff |

An effort by the Arizona Legislature to craft permanent legislation to prevent a person from being denied access to businesses, government facilities, and even their child’s school unless they showed proof of being vaccination for COVID-19 was pushed aside Monday when Gov. Doug Ducey issued an executive order about the issue.

Under Executive Order 21-09, most private businesses in Arizona will be free to refuse service to “a customer” who does not provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination. Only companies which receive state funding to provide services to the public are banned from inquiring about someone’s status, although Ducey’s order does not protect those citizens who cannot receive a vaccine for a medical reason

“While we strongly recommend all Arizonans get the COVID-19 vaccine, it’s not mandated in our state — and it never will be,” Ducey said in announcing his latest COVID related executive order. “Vaccination is up to each individual, not the government.”

Daycares, schools, colleges, and universities would still be able to ask about a student’s vaccination record as already allowed by law, but parents could not be asked about their own vaccination status if the educational program receives any state funding.

In addition, hospitals and other healthcare facilities can inquire about the vaccination status of patients, prospective patients, vendors, visitors, and staff, even if the organization receives state funds.

There was initially some confusion Monday morning about what EO 2021-09 encompassed, as Ducey’s official Twitter account read “I’ve issued an Executive Order banning ‘vaccine passports’ and preventing state and local governments from requiring Arizonans to provide their #COVID19 vaccination status to receive service or enter an area.”

Many took the first sentence to mean businesses could not impose a vaccine requirement on customers. However, that misinterpretation was quickly corrected by the rest of the governor’s comments.

Ducey noted in the executive order that no person should be compelled to disclose their private health information -including their vaccination record- to a government entity as a condition of receiving services, obtaining a license or permit, or entrance to a public facility unless state law already requires proof of vaccination.

He added that federal and state laws allow individuals to refuse to be vaccinated, and that “it is not and will not be mandated in the State of Arizona.”

EO 2021-09 also prohibits any other state subdivision -including cities towns, counties, and state agencies- from adopting a policy or ordinance that contradicts the governor’s order. This ensures cities, towns, and counties cannot demand proof of vaccinations for people to use public parks and other public recreational and entertainment amenities.

Rep. Bret Roberts (R-LD11) first introduced legislation to ban such “vaccine passports” in Arizona. His effort was taken up by Sen. Kelly Townsend on March 28 in the form of HB2190, which would have protected Arizonans from having to divulge their vaccination record to shop, dine, or do most everyday activities.

HB2190 hit a snag in early April over concerns that it did not allow healthcare providers nor business owners to inquire about vaccination status of their employees. Negotiations have been underway all month on possible amendments to Townsend’s bill.

For his part, Roberts announced his support for EO 2021-09, noting Ducey’s “reasons for doing so are sound.” But he went on to note that many of those sounds reasons “also apply to the private sector.”

“No one should be required to give up their medical history to participate in commerce,” Roberts tweeted Monday morning. “When all businesses require it the individuals choice is lost. Allowing private business to do this amounts to segregation.”

Roberts also expressed concern that executive orders are intended to be temporary. After the governor’s announcement, Rep. Leo Biasiucci (R-LD4) said SB2190 should be voted on in the coming days as it “solves the issue with businesses requiring vaccine mandates.”

Also on Monday, Ducey rescinded a section of his EO 2020-51 which had directed K-12 schools to require masks.

“We will continue to work with public health professionals and Arizona’s schools as more students return to the classroom and our state moves forward,” the governor said.

Arizona Legislature Approves Teacher Lunches During School Events – But Only If They Meet School Nutrition Guidelines

Arizona Legislature Approves Teacher Lunches During School Events – But Only If They Meet School Nutrition Guidelines

By Corinne Murdock |

The Arizona legislature has voted to allow schools to feed teachers during school events – but only if they use Arizona Department of Education (ADE) nutritional guidelines. That means that teacher meals will be constrained to the five food group components of meat/meat based alternatives, grains, vegetables, fruit, and fluid milk.

One of the nutritional standards is zero grams of trans fat. That would nix out fried foods, like doughnuts, and certain baked goods like biscuits or crackers. Further, there are limits on the types of desserts made available. Any grain-based desserts can only be offered at a rate of 2.0 oz/eq of grain a week.

More leeway exists with the USDA guidelines for “Smart Snacks” – those food or drink items sold elsewhere, like through vending machines. It is unclear if the bill will allow schools to provide meals to teachers with foods or drinks that would qualify as “smart snack” items – such as candy or sodas. The “smart snacks” are technically considered “competitive” foods to meals provided through the school.

No analysis of the estimated fiscal impact accompanied the bill.

The Senate passed the bill enabling school boards to provide food and drinks during district events on Tuesday. The bill also clarified that boards acting under this legal authority would be subject to the Arizona Gift Clause.

State Representative Daniel Hernandez (D-Tucson) is the sponsor on the bill. The House Education Committee recommended the bill for passage quickly.

“Statutes don’t explicitly allow school districts to be able to provide food for teacher trainings, board meetings, [etcetera,]” explained Hernandez, in brief.

No further questions were asked of the bill.

Only six House members voted against the bill, all Republican. State Representatives Walter Blackman (R-Snowflake), John Fillmore (R-Apache Junction), Gail Griffin (R-Hereford), Jacqueline Parker (R-Mesa), Judy Burges (R-Prescott), Travis Grantham (R-Gilbert), Jake Hoffman (R-Queen Creek), Bret Roberts (R-Maricopa), and Joseph Chaplik (R-Scottsdale) voted no.

An amendment to the bill, introduced by Hernandez in February, deleted the provision that would’ve enabled school boards to provide food and drinks via a cafe open to the public. Another amendment to the bill was what added the stipulation that these food and drink provisions would be subject to the Arizona Gift Clause, added by the Senate Education Committee.

The Senate passed along the bill quickly without discussion. Six senators voted against the bill, all Republicans again – State Senators Nancy Barto (R-Phoenix), David Livingston (R-Peoria), Kelly Townsend (R-Mesa), Michelle Ugenti-Rita (R-Scottsdale), Sine Kerr (R-Buckeye), and Warren Petersen (R-Gilbert).

The bill will now head to the governor’s desk for approval.

Corinne Murdock is a contributing reporter for AZ Free News. In her free time, she works on her books and podcasts. Follow her on Twitter, @CorinneMurdock or email tips to corinnejournalist@gmail.com.