In Their Own Words: The Fight to Save Tucson's Ethnic Studies Program

Each day this week, Amicus will feature an editorial post written by one of CRCL’s new General Board members. Today’s post discusses the controversy surrounding Tucson’s ethnic studies program.

Arizona, home of SB 1070, has proven itself to be ground zero in the nation’s immigration debate. At the center of racially charged controversy is Tom Horne, former Superintendent of Public Instruction and current state Attorney General, who has waged a four-year campaign to eradicate the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican-American/La Raza Studies Program.

Horne ran for superintendent on the platform to “stop La Raza”, which he accused of teaching “ethnic chauvinism” because it uses works by authors critical of the United States’ historical relationship with Latin America and its past treatment of Latinos. He authored a bill signed into law on May 11, 2010, A.R.S. §§15-111 and 112, which bans courses that promote resentment toward a race or class of people, advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals, or promote the overthrow of the United States government. On his final day as Superintendent, Horne announced that La Raza was in noncompliance with HB 2281. No other ethnic studies programs were targeted.

La Raza is fighting back. It organized the Save Ethnic Studies Movement and on October 18, 2010, attorney Richard Martinez filed suit in the United States District Court against Superintendent Horne and State Board of Education, on behalf of eleven TUSD Mexican American Studies teachers and two TUSD students. The legal challenge contends that A.R.S. §§15-111 and 112’s attempts to wipe out the Mexican American Studies program is an unlawful infringement of free speech, and a denial of due process and of equal protection based solely on the teachers’ and students’ race. In late April La Raza students chained themselves to the school board members’ chairs, preventing a vote to terminate the program’s accreditation.

At a recent press conference, current Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal proclaimed that a $170,000 audit he commissioned proved that the Mexican American Studies Program was in noncompliance with state law. An actual look at the audit proves Huppenthal’s claims are outright lies. According to the audit, students in the Mexican American Studies program graduate at a rate of 11 percent more than their counterparts, and “no observable evidence suggested a violation of the law A.R.S. 15-112.” Hundreds of thousands of tax dollars and several dozen arrests later, it ironically appears that the ethnic studies program is in compliance with a likely unconstitutional law engendered to eliminate it.

This baseless attack on the Mexican American Studies program highlights the shortfalls of Brown v. Board of Education and a need to articulate the right of ethnic groups to retain group identity and cultural integrity in the public sphere, including in public education. While institutionalized segregation is no longer sanctioned, curriculum continues to focus on the historic perspective of the oppressor, and not the oppressed. In an educational system that disproportionately fails minority students, ethnic studies programs offer educational engagement and success and should be supported on a federal level.

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The Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review (CR-CL) is the nation’s leading progressive law journal. Founded in 1966 as an instrument to advance personal freedoms and human dignities, CR-CL seeks to catalyze progressive thought and dialogue through publishing innovative legal scholarship and from various perspectives and in diverse fields of study.

Latest comments
  • There is a fundamental irony here. Those who seek to infringe upon the right of free speech and the right of assembly, are those who tout their own attempts to safeguard the Constitution. It just goes to show that for these tea party “know nothings,” the Constitution is wonderful and should be upheld as long as it advances their misguided ideologies.

    These are the same folks who are trying to pervert the plain language of the 14th Amendment which proclaims that those who are born in the US are citizens.

  • When and where did AZSuperintendent of Public Instruction, John Huppenthal, say the audit proved the MAS program was in noncompliance? Please provide your source.

    Obviously, the author of this piece has very little familiarity with the Raza curriculum. Historical perspective is one thing, but to teach children that they are victims is to do them a grave disservice.

    • Amy, the posts in this series were submitted to CR-CL as part of the application process for new General Board members. SInce these authors have not yet been a part of the CR-CL editing process, their posts are being published anonymously. I am responding to your request for a source, but I wanted to make clear that I am not the original author of this post.

      The audit that Huppenthal commissioned indicated that the Tucson Ethnic Studies Program was in compliance with state law. Yet when Huppenthal reported the findings of the audit, he falsely claimed that it supported his assertion that the program was in violation.

      Here are a couple of sources for that information:

      The second source has particularly relevant quotes relating to your last point. The program is designed to improve student achievement, it treats all students as individuals, and students are taught to respect, not resent, multiple ethnicities. A program like this is built around teaching history and literature that are not part of the mainstream curriculum, particularly in a conservative state like Arizona. Showing students the impact their culture has had on history in a positive way seems to me to be the opposite of teaching victimization.

  • Noah, I appreciate your reply. However, I’ve followed this situation for years. I’ve attended the hearings and spoken to teachers, and the curriculum is not at all what you describe.

    Take a look at this, from a teacher whose class was hijacked by Raza thugs.

    Furthermore, Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal NEVER said the audit concluded that the program was out of compliance. Nor does the HuffPost article you cite have any evidence of such a statement.

    and William. This has absolutely nothing to do with free speech. It’s about public school curriculum.

  • Amy, I am happy to engage with you on this subject, but only if you are going to fairly represent the sources. I’m not sure you actually read the sources I posted in the previous post.

    The first two paragraphs from the Arizona Republic: “Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal’s finding cited in a two-page document that the Tucson Unified School District’s ethnic-studies program is illegal has been contradicted by a 120-page audit – an audit that Huppenthal implied supported his determination when he announced it Wednesday.

    Instead, the Cambium Learning Group auditors’ report says, ‘During the curriculum audit period, no observable evidence was present to suggest that any classroom within the Tucson Unified School District is in direct violation of the law.’

    From the Huffington Post: “On closer review, the audit — which admittedly visited only 37% of the classes in the affected Tucson schools for a single 30-minute inspection — contradicts most of Huppenthal’s illusive claims and ultimately finds the MAS Program to be in compliance.

    The article that you posted is by no means evidence of a class “hijacked by Raza thugs.” One teacher who no longer works in the district is airing his grievances with no other citations but his own words.

    I will trust the independent audit, which Huppenthal paid for with state money and yet chose to ignore, over the word of one teacher.

    • Noah, I don’t agree with Amy’s view on the subject but I do feel her frustration with the lack of “legal” references. If their were an audit, why is not being cited or does Arizona’s freedom of information statutes differ from other states.

      Amy, to be White in America must be great because that is the only history that high school history dares to cover in detail. Slavery, Jim Crow, Willie Lynch, segregation, share cropping, slavery, Juneteenth, black codes and many other Black issues are usually covered in one chapter of US History books. But Blacks have been a part of US History since the first settlement was established. To think that some of the Willie Lynch tactics are being used for our educational system is shameful considering it was the basic ideology used to train or break slaves. To say Mexican American History is dangerous and ethnic chauvinistic is propaganda and censorship.

  • I have read the articles you cited, along with everything else that’s been written on the subject over the past several years. Your original point was that Mr. Huppenthal falsely stated that the audit found the program to be noncompliant with the ban. He did not.

    That the audit found the program to be in compliance is obvious. The fact that taxpayer money was spent on the audit doesn’t add to its credibility.

  • “This baseless attack on the Mexican American Studies program highlights the shortfalls of Brown v. Board of Education and a need to articulate the right of ethnic groups to retain group identity and cultural integrity in the public sphere, including in public education.”

    I think this an extremely powerful and profound observation. After traveling through latinoamerica i’ve come to realize that discussions about blacks in the US has been almost exclusively a RACIAL one, ignoring the fact that racialization is a tool to erase and therefore disregard the ethnic identity of people. A necessary tool to integrate people into the homogenic narrative of american identity, 21st century colonialism.

  • Is it government’s role to impart racial and/or ethnic group identity through public education? Manu, there are many many children of color whose identity is tied into religion, community or some other category or categories other than race. Should public schools be imposing ethnic identity on these children? Isn’t that better left to their parents?

  • 1) you do realize that the case of HB 2281 is precisely one where “government”, and literally, THE State (in this case Arizona) wants to impose ethnic identity on “those children”. (before you come reacting with ‘no its not’ – read the law… The state is telling a community what values it should impose on its children.

    2) You should read my post again, you seem to not have a clue about what i said. I talk about how race is used to negate what truly matters, ethnicity/culture and you go on talking about race.

    The problem here Amy H Laff is that you simply cannot accept the reality that there are liberty minded hispanic and african american communities who have a very different view of American identity precisely because their experience of American history has not been the one shown through the narrative of our textbooks.

    many expressions mexican american and native american cultures don’t freak out at the notion of collective living, and certainly not at cultural differences and that’s precisely what we want to teach our children, in our schools, without the government telling us what our identity and our values are, specially when the values it tries to impose are based on a very ignorant understanding of the pedagogy and cultural history of the people its targetting.

  • The sad part is if you follow the money this bill creates revenue for those that are responsible for pointing out the guilty. Also the bill does not give examples of what is right or wrong by law; instead it covers the consequences for being found in the wrong and where the money will go. What opened my eyes most is that they will rewrite books, that is a way for School Boards to funnel money into administrators pockets. It is ironic that the very person who wrote the bill is a former administrator. It’s all a big hustle.