Public schools across the state must juggle a whole new series of state laws covering hot-button topics like sex education, discipline policies, school testing, and time spent in the classroom.

The Arizona School Board’s Association recently put out a summary for school boards statewide on some of the complex changes in state law they must navigate this year – when they’re not coping with the pandemic.

So here are some of the new laws that will affect school districts:

Sex Education (H2035)

The new law bars any sex education instruction before the fifth grade. The legislature enacted a host of new restrictions on sex education programs mostly to classroom discussions of homosexuality, gender identity or anything that might encourage teens to have sex.

Only about 31% of Arizona students currently receive any sex education at all, according to a survey by the McClelland Institute. Numerous studies have shown that a properly designed sex education curriculum can reduce teen pregnancy, risky sexual behavior, sexually transmitted diseases and the average number of partners, according to a research summary by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

The specific new requirement include:

• Getting signed parent permission for student to attend.

• Allow parents to review all curriculum materials.

• Require governing boards to specify all materials.

• Ensure meetings of committees reviewing curriculum are open to the public.

• Schedule at least two public hearing at least 60 days regarding use of materials in the classroom.

• Makes it clear no school has to provide sex education.

• Notes that none of the new requirements should prevent an “age appropriate” discussion of child sexual assault and abuse.

• Requires existing programs to comply by Dec. 15.

Suspensions and Expulsions (H2123):

This measure would impose numerous limits on when a school can suspend or expel an elementary school student. The bill would bar suspension of any child younger than six and allow such actions against 5-7 year olds only when they create a safety threat and only after other attempts to change the behavior have failed. The behavior could involve things like weapons, drugs, an immediate threat to the safety of others or behavior that prevents other students from learning or teachers from maintaining control of the classroom. Even then, previous efforts to change the behavior must have failed – including involvement of the parents.

The measure would also require schools to set up a clear readmission procedure within 20 days and ensure that the behavior wasn’t the result of a disability.

School Testing and letter classification (H2402):

The bill bars assigning any letter grades to schools this year — the second year in a row the state has skipped rating schools, largely based on student test scores, dropout rates and other criteria. The delay came as a fragmented year of distance learning and pandemic confusion dropped scores sharply statewide.

The state’s system for assigning letter grades to schools has been in turmoil for years. At one time, Arizona had its own high school graduation test – the AIMS test. However, the state kept watering that test down due to a high failure rate, which could have denied students a diploma. The state eventually replaced the home-grown AIMS test with the AZMerit test, which provided a way to compare Arizona students to students nationally. As schools integrated the AZMerit test into the curriculum over a period of years, initially low scores gradually improved. The federal government encouraged the adoption of such nationally normed tests with extra funding. However, the AZMerit test came under criticism by groups that feared a federal takeover of local schools through a single, nationally normed test. So the Arizona legislature essentially upended the system, telling districts they could pick an assessment off a list of options. Then the pandemic hit and many districts skipped a year of testing.

The new rules require the Arizona Department of Education to collect data from whatever tests the schools are using and publish the data. The Department must then figure out some way of taking all these different tests and developing criteria to figure out if a school is “below average.” The school board can decide on its own whether to fire or penalize teachers whose students don’t measure up.

The new law includes a lot of other provisions about changing test dates and not penalizing test vendors. It’s unclear from the summary provided to the school board when — and if — the state will resume giving letter grades to schools.

Oh, yeah: This is all retroactive to July 1 of 2020.

Instructional Time Models (H2862):

This head-scratcher is intended to give school boards more flexibility in meeting the state-mandated minimum amount of time kids have to spend in class. This could presumably include things like the shift to a four-day school week and use of distance-learning programs.

After discussing the issue at two public meetings, a board may “adopt any instructional time models to meet the minimum annual instructional time and instructional hours requirements of statute for determining average daily membership, daily attendance, student count, and any other purpose relating to instructional time or instructional hours,” the requirements state.

Go that?

Anyway – this means districts can meet the minimum requirement through any combination of “direct instruction, project-based learning and independent learning time, and master-based learning.” That includes any combination of remote and in-person learning. The district could also meet those instructional minimums with programs on weekends, after school, online or other formats.

The headline here for school districts comes in the convoluted language about whether the state will eliminate the existing funding penalty for online classes. In theory, districts could actually get extra money for online classes as part of a blended program that exceeded the state instructional minimums.

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

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