Greenburg: Give Scottsdale students the education they deserve

Posted 6/1/21

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” or so countless generations of students have been told by family members, teachers and professors, and pundits on …

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Greenburg: Give Scottsdale students the education they deserve


“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” or so countless generations of students have been told by family members, teachers and professors, and pundits on television.

We hear this phrase so often that we become numb to its importance, failing to reflect on our past actions when charting new courses.

In a recent Facebook “post,” I wrote that Scottsdale Unified School District is “first and foremost an academic institution. We have an obligation to provide students the tools necessary to thrive, and we cannot help develop [necessary skills] . . . if we ban age-appropriate ideas, literature, books, and other topics of discussion.”

To highlight the dangers of ideological bans, I reminded the public that the National Socialist (Nazi) movement began its book burnings in May 1933 — only 88 years ago. I also pointed to the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, in which a teacher, John T. Scopes, was convicted of teaching evolution in public school — a banned subject — and ordered to pay a $100 fine (roughly $1,500 today, adjusted for inflation).

That case will be turning 96 in July. I urged the public not to repeat history, but to instead “. . . give our students the education they deserve ....”

This post was written in response to individuals in our own community who have called on elected government officials, like me, to ban “critical race theory” from our schools.

Everywhere we look we can find fellow citizens and state governments advocating for the banning of this subject. Roughly 12 states, including Arizona, have passed, or are considering, nearly identical legislation aimed at prohibiting the teaching of “controversial subjects,” the target of which is critical race theory.

But critical race theory is just a legal analytical framework — one of many. It has, like any subject, its critics and its supporters. And while it is not taught in our schools — given that we do not teach legal theory — it makes no sense why students and classes should not be free to study, research, analyze, and critique it just like any other subject matter.

We have heard, first-hand, students’ desire to broach difficult topics. During the board’s regular meeting on May 24, Coronado High School students noted how much they enjoyed discussing current events and “controversial” subjects, like vaccines, with their classmates as part of Coronado’s Pre-AP program.

Why take away one of our students’ favorite aspects about school? Why deny them the opportunity to debate these issues and form their own, well-researched opinions? Because, at the end of the day, our students know about the issues around them.

If you look at who is attending our board meetings and participating in anti-critical race theory protests, there are unsurprisingly no children — just adults — raising the question, “who are we really trying to protect with these bans?”

The United States Supreme Court explained it the best. In Shelton v. Tucker (1960), Justice Stewart writing for the majority stated that: 

[t]he vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools. By limiting the power of the States to interfere with freedom of speech and freedom of inquiry and freedom of association, the Fourteenth Amendment protects all persons, no matter what their calling. But, in view of the nature of the teacher’s relation to the effective exercise of the rights which are safeguarded by the Bill of Rights and by the Fourteenth Amendment, inhibition of freedom of thought, and of action upon thought, in the case of teachers brings the safeguards of those amendments vividly into operation. Such unwarranted inhibition upon the free spirit of teachers . . . has an unmistakable tendency to chill that free play of the spirit which all teachers ought especially to cultivate and practice; it makes for caution and timidity in their associations by potential teachers. Scholarship cannot flourish in an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust. Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate. (Internal citations omitted).

I personally take pride in defending the First Amendment for our students’ and the public’s benefit. I successfully argued for the removal of unconstitutional content restrictions in our public comment policy and prayer at school events.

I also worked with the rest of my board colleagues to move the public comment section back to the beginning of our meetings so that more members of the public could participate.

I also take pride in the fact that I have never interfered with the administration’s recommendations about curriculum or supplemental resources. I have never asked for conservative or liberal works (e.g., Ayn Rand) to be removed from our curriculum materials and never would.

Instead, I believe what our students are taught should be left to the over 1,500 subject matter experts who work with our students every day in their classrooms. As I wrote in my post, let’s give our students the education they deserve.

Editor’s Note: Jann-Michael Greenburg is the president of the Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board.