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.