Not 'core academic issues': Horne cancels educator presentations on trauma, social emotional learning

Yana Kunichoff
Arizona Republic
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Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne listens to Gov. Katie Hobbs deliver her State of the State address to the Arizona House of Representatives during the opening session of the 56th Legislature on Jan. 9, 2023, in Phoenix.

Julie Lillie was thrilled when her presentation for an educator conference hosted by the Arizona Department of Education was approved last fall. The former classroom teacher and literacy coach turned consultant would get to speak about an issue close to her heart: culturally relevant and trauma-informed tools to support students.

Then, in January, she got a message saying her conference session was canceled. She wasn’t alone. Other presentations on racial trauma, gratitude, creating a culture of care, diversity and equity skills for school leaders and family engagement were also removed from the agenda.

Republican Tom Horne returned to leading the Arizona Department of Education in January, promising to eradicate teaching on diversity and equity and eliminate the use of social emotional learning in Arizona schools.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, a national non-profit credited with developing the concept of social emotional learning, describes it as a tool to help young people regulate their emotions, establish and maintain relationships, and show empathy for others — all skills the organization says are essential to learning.

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The Horne administration considers social emotional learning, diversity, and equity to be Trojan horses for critical race theory, an academic concept examining how race impacts U.S. institutions that some conservatives use to characterize any race-related instruction. Horne, during his campaign to replace Democrat Kathy Hoffman as Arizona's Superintendent of Public Instruction, declared "war" on critical race theory.

The shift in what presentations are welcomed to the statewide teacher conference run by Arizona's education agency offers an early look into how the Horne administration will impose its conservative priorities from within an office with a primarily administrative function.

The nixed presentations were replaced with sessions on improving math instruction, suicide prevention and how to improve a student’s academic performance, according to the education department. The conference is set to start in Tucson on Wednesday, Jan. 25, and run until Friday, Jan. 27.

“The presentations that were removed don’t address core academic issues such as teaching reading, science and math,” said department spokesperson Doug Nick.

Lillie said the Horne administration’s battle against diversity and supporting students’ social and emotional needs through classroom instruction will be harmful.

“We’re just doing such a disservice to our educators and leaders,” said Lillie, who now creates curriculum, gives presentations and works with school districts on implementing an idea called peace education, which includes social emotional learning.

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Michaela Rose Claussen, an education consultant whose presentation on how school leaders can empower educators and address burnout through social emotional learning tools was eliminated from the department's conference, also said she is worried that excising social emotional learning from schools will hurt students and staff.

"When students enter the classroom, I think the assumption by some folks is that they just enter ready to learn. But there are different levels of experiences and often trauma that students are bringing into the classroom with them," said Claussen. "And they're not quite developed yet emotionally, like we are as adults, to leave it at the door. So we have to really be cautious about how are we paying attention to student needs."

The Horne administration, however, holds that social emotional learning has no place in the classroom. They regularly hear from teachers "who disagree with being compelled to use social emotional learning curriculum instead of teaching core subjects," said Nick, the education department spokesperson.

That doesn't line up with national research, according to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, which points to a 2022 Pew Research poll that shows about two-thirds of parents said it is important their children’s school teaches social and emotional skills.

“There’s no real controversy among parents or educators,” said Justina Schlund, director of the organization's content and field learning.

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In addition to axing presentations at an educators' conference, Horne has eliminated the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Department within the Arizona Department of Education.

Daniel Liou, an associate professor of educational leadership at Arizona State University’s School of Education, said he is concerned about that change. The Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Department, he said, was intended to recognize that some groups of students may require additional resources to close academic achievement gaps, including students learning English, Indigenous students and students experiencing homelessness.

Daniel Liou

Getting rid of the office and the person who ran it sends the message that the “success of some students is more important than others,” said Liou. “We know that historically these populations have been experiencing inequitable educational outcomes, and at the same time, they're being impacted by the pandemic, so it was important to at least maintain that office, if not expand it.”

Horne disagrees with this assessment of the role of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Department.

"The word ‘equity’ in the common English usage is a positive word. However, in the context of Critical Race Theory, it has come to mean equal outcomes by racial groups," said Horne in a statement. "My belief is that we are all individuals, not exemplars of whatever particular ethnic group we were born into."

Daniel Gonzalez contributed reporting.

Yana Kunichoff is a reporter on The Arizona Republic's K-12 education team. You can join the Republic's Facebook page and reach Yana at [email protected].

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