Maddy Mogan is 17. They go to school every day, so that one day, they can get into college to further their passion for film and writing screenplays. But sometimes that future seems distant. Especially on days when they are tired.
Tired of being a target for Arizona politicians and policymakers. Tired of thinking about the reality of knowing that people they didn’t vote for — couldn’t vote for — have the power to make decisions about their life, often without talking with them or anyone their age.
“We’re the ones who are going to be inheriting this community, and we should already start being a part of it and actively making decisions,” Maddy says. “It’s a real shame that’s not already happening and we’re basically completely powerless in the decisions that are being made about us.”
Maddy lives in Tucson and goes to high school in the Tucson Unified School District. Here, young people grow up with the legacy of a mass shooting in 2011 that killed a 9-year-old girl and five other people and wounded a congresswoman and 12 others. All on a Saturday morning at a civic community event.
Maddy was just old enough for school when the shooting happened. Today, they are old enough to know that policies and politics, and the divisive rhetoric around these issues, in Arizona and nationwide have consequences. Now, Maddy belongs to a generation that has lived through a deadly global pandemic, told over and over: We’re in this together.
But Maddy says teachers and students in Arizona are feeling forgotten. Left out of conversations that affect not only education, but their safety.
On Thursday, March 9, Tom Horne, the newly-elected Republican schools superintendent, launched an Arizona Department of Education phone number and email for anyone to anonymously report educators — directly to the state — for “inappropriate lessons.”
Teachers will be investigated if their lessons include race or ethnicity, promote gender ideology, social emotional learning, or inappropriate sexual content, according to the education department’s website.
The government-sanctioned “Empower Hotline” follows through on a Horne campaign promise as a conservative to battle critical race theory and improve student test scores.
Virginia had a similar hotline but it was shut down in 2022, as most of the reports praised teachers, complained about special-education violations and involved few tips about critical race theory lessons.
Opponents of critical race theory define it as a way to make White people feel guilty for their privilege. Educators point out that the college-level teachings center on the role of race in the country’s history, and identity and acknowledge that much of recorded history is from a White perspective.
“The collective idea among my friends is that we just want to learn and have a decent education and we’re just exasperated with how poorly Arizona goes about that,” Maddy says. “Trying to restrict topics and ideas will just be more frustrating for students. It’s never a good idea.”
“As students you don’t feel like you can do anything about it besides just trying to continue in school and we’re the ones getting hurt by things like this.”
On Wednesday, teachers rallied at the state Capitol calling for the hotline to be shut down, donning banners reading “Stand With Educators” and “Stop the Attacks.” Many wore red, a recall to the 2018 #RedforEd teacher strikes, which pushed for more school funding and better teacher pay in a state long behind in national standings for education investments.
Educators, parents and students are concerned that efforts like this will only worsen the state of public education in Arizona.
Meanwhile, Horne, citing his election win as a mandate, continues to push through a slate of new conservative policies, including a proposal to slash a school’s letter grade if they don’t adhere to the Horne administration’s definition of value-based teaching standards.
Horne won his election over Democrat Kathy Hoffman by a margin so close, it triggered an automatic recount in a purple state that elected a Democrat governor for the first time in 14 years.
The hotline to report people who choose to teach in a state with a teaching-shortage crisis is up and running. Horne told Arizona Luminaria that two investigators, including a former police officer, are monitoring complaints against educators.
“Race is irrelevant to anything,” Horne said in an education department statement. “Critical race theory teaches the opposite, that race is primary. They divide students into ‘oppressors’ and ‘oppressed’ based on what race they were born into, which is irrational.”
Restrictions are a ‘slippery slope‘
Opponents of education policies that censor history and current events say that topics of race, ethnicity and gender ideology are realities of the world and vital to preparing students to meet academic standards.
“In order to actually learn the material in the curriculum, we have to have discussions about the things that are quote-unquote indoctrinating you,” Maddy says. “It’s really a slippery slope when we say what we are not allowed to talk about in school. It really restricts the ability for students to be able to think and have good conversations and learn more about the world and how it functions.”
“Right now, at least in school, we don’t avoid those topics. We genuinely try to get to the heart of certain things,” Maddy says. “It would be really unfortunate, if teachers were to be put in danger with trying to allow us to discuss things that people consider controversial.”
One teacher told Arizona Luminaria that she and other educators have been receiving death threats. She provided her name to Arizona Luminaria and asked to be identified as a Latinx public schools educator to protect her and her students’ safety.
Some education experts argue that restricting rigorous academic discourse will have adverse effects on the development of children.
“It’s trying to censor and cause harm to our public schools and to our students because what we know is that when we teach students about identity, about character, and how to interact with other people, it makes them better human beings,” says the Latinx educator. “But under this empower hotline, even Black History Month would be considered something that [teachers] could be reported for.”
Even simple children’s books could put teachers at risk.
“I was just in the classroom the other day reading to a bunch of kindergarten kids and it was really sweet,” Margaret Chaney says. “It made me feel like, oh yeah, teaching is fun. The kids were great and very active, and curious about things.”
Margaret is the president of the Tucson Education Association and a former high school teacher. After years of teaching, she finds it mind boggling to know that something as traditional as reading time for children can now stoke fear if you’re a teacher in Arizona.
“The books I read were just a couple of silly little children’s tales about wolves, one was ‘The Wolf Who Cried Boy’ and ‘The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs,’” she says. “I keep thinking: Are we at a point where if I read these — what I consider pretty harmless books — to kids who then go home and say, ‘The lady came in and she read this great book and it’s called this,’ which the parents misinterprets for having some sort of political design behind it, calls the empower hotline and suddenly I’m being sued or my certification is being taken away.”
Arizona educators worry that the anonymous nature of the hotline harms the already established means of communication between teachers and parents.
“There’s a lot of ways parents can feel empowered to review their kid’s curriculum,” says Megan Mogan, a public schools educator and Maddy’s mother. “Go to the governing board meetings for their school districts when curriculums come up for review. Give public feedback when they come online for review. Most districts have curriculum review nights where you can walk through and see everything that’s offered. There’s parent-teacher conferences. There’s open houses at every school. What about the concept of talking to your kids in school and reaching out directly to your kid’s teacher?”
The hotline could exacerbate Arizona’s current teacher shortage and the realities of teachers being expected to do more with fewer resources.
“It’s as if they don’t want people to teach in our schools at all,” Margaret says. “If you make the wrong move, or if you are accused of something nefarious, you know you’re suddenly being investigated and put on leave or any number of things and who wants to work in that environment? If you want to retain teachers, you’ve got to trust their professionalism and you’ve got to understand the purpose behind the curriculum and how this sort of thing goes against it.”
Margaret recently spoke with incoming teachers at University of Arizona. She told them about how great teaching is and can be. She also told them about the reality of teaching in Arizona and how they will be faced with more challenges than they should be.
“It takes about three years for a teacher to get their professional feet underneath them,” Margaret says. “And in that time, are you going to be able to withstand all of the accusations, the investigations, the finger pointing, the low pay, all those things you might not necessarily have to fear in Illinois, or California, or Vegas, you know? I can’t argue with that unfortunately.”
Arizona ranks at the bottom — 48 out of 51 — of U.S. states with the best school systems, according to a study by WalletHub.
The majority of reports submitted to the hotline so far have been through email, according to Horne in an interview with AZ Luminaria.
He says reports can be made over the phone or via email, where a team receives and passes them along to the two investigators when deemed significant enough for further investigation, one of whom is a former police officer and the other has a background as an investigator.
Horne says a large number of those reports have included “crank and hate emails,” which he expects will continue. He told AZ Family that the reporting system, so far, has received about 600 calls and 2,000 emails.
Horne says the budget for this program “is really minor” with “no major expenditures involved,” but he did not provide numbers for the amount of public tax dollars expended.
As parents and educators are concerned that this hotline would disrupt established communication methods between teachers and parents, Horne says that’s not the intent. He encourages parents to reach out to the teacher first, then the principal, then the school board.
Regarding concerns from teachers about harassment, Horne says they’re against any kind of harassment as that’s not the purpose of the hotline.
“The purpose is for people to communicate with us and for us to be able to check whether what they’re saying is true and if it’s not true, we’ll ignore it,” he says.
However, Horne says teachers could face disciplinary action if found violating his guidelines on school lessons. That discipline could vary and escalate depending on the alleged offense, he added.
“Teachers are supposed to be teaching academics, that’s what they’re paid to do by taxpayer money and if they’re using a captive audience to push their personal ideology, that’s an abuse and it’s unprofessional,” Horne says. “The first step would be just to ask them to stop and then you have other steps like if you have somebody who is totally defiant, then the ultimate step could be, I suppose, they could lose their license.”
Arizona teachers are not required to have a license. The State Board of Education can revoke a teacher’s certification for a number of reasons, including if they’ve been convicted of manslaughter, molestation or armed robbery.
Critics say the hotline is a political stunt that could needlessly harm teachers and their students, given that Arizona already requires that the State Board of Education — not Horne — review and approve any official disciplinary action against an educator.
Many ways for parents to get involved
Arizona’s 2022 midterm election saw several narrow victories for Democrats and Republicans, resulting in a mix of liberal and conservative officials now heading important political positions.
Democrats hold seats for the governor, secretary of state, attorney general, while Republicans control both chambers of the Legislature and won the state treasurer’s office. Horne’s victory over incumbent Kathy Hoffman was by nearly 9,000 votes or 1.4 percentage points.
That’s a slim margin that many progressive voters believe can be overcome next election.
“Overall, we really have to educate voters on who serves our public school educators, family, students and get elected officials who really value public education,” Megan says. “Secondly, I think we would need to remind families of how to access their child’s curriculum and how to stay engaged in their school communities.”
Horne’s return to the head of Arizona schools is a reminder of his previous time in office when Mexican-American studies was banned in Tucson schools in 2011, a move that he championed. In 2017, a federal judge later ruled that the ban was “motivated by racial animus” and violated students’ First Amendment rights, as well as the equal protection clause of the Constitution by discriminating against Latinos.
“Tom Horne should be recalled,” the Latina educator says. “His decisions just in his first few months of office have made it quite clear he is not fit to run the office of superintendent of public education in Arizona and that position should be run by someone who is actually a classroom teacher in the K-12 system and who is actually a product of Arizona public schools.”
Hope through engagement
Despite not yet being old enough to vote, Maddy advocates for greater civic engagement and will vote when they’re old enough.
They’re currently involved with Not My Generation, a youth-led coalition that spreads awareness about gun violence and they participated in movements that advocated against bills regarding transgender youth up at the Phoenix state capitol.
They try to make a difference. At 17, are they hopeful for their future?
“I’m going to say, ‘I don’t know,’” Maddy says.
“Right now, it doesn’t seem like there’s any regard for young people’s lives. But then I think the only reason I’m still in high school and planning on going through college is because I think there is hope.”
Maddy lets out a deep breath. These are big questions for a teenager, for anyone of any age, really.
Maddy doesn’t know what the hotline will mean for them or for their teachers. Maybe, for now, it’s OK to be tired and not have answers. To just know that they’ll wake up tomorrow and find a way to keep learning.