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The Truth Behind the Ethnic Studies Debate In Arizona

Chris Griffin • Jul 22, 2011

Sit-in at AZ State Building

In Tucson Arizona, students, teachers and allies have been engaged in a long, heated battle over ethnic studies education.  Signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer in May of last year, just three days after SB1070 was signed into law; HB2281 is part of an anti-ethnic studies agenda that dates back to 2006.  Written by then Superintendent of Public Instruction and now the current State Attorney General, Tom Horne has made it his mission to end ethnic studies programs in Arizona, specifically the ethnic studies program at the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) as it currently is the only such program in Arizona.  To do this, Horne and supporters, which includes SB1070 author State Senator Russell Pearce, looked to demonize the program.

The law essentially states that an Arizona ethnic studies program is illegal if it meets any of the following criteria:

1. Promote the overthrow of the United States government.

2. Promote resentment toward a race or class of people.

3. Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.

4. Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.

The law also states that the person responsible for declaring a program illegal is the Superintendent of Public Instruction, which is exactly what Horne did just three hours before leaving that position.  In a June article from the Arizona Daily Star, the director of the American Civil liberties Union of Arizona argued that “this law was deliberately written to enable the state superintendent to ban the Mexican American Studies program based on his own personal views and biases.”

Horne ruled the program illegal despite having “steadfastly refused to step foot into a TUSD Mexican American Studies classroom or to discuss the curriculum and learning process with students” according to Saveethnicstudies.org.

In this great land of ignorance in which Horne and his supporters reside, the truth is irrelevant and reality is determined instead by political ideology.  Horne’s ideology is not just defined by this law, however; it is defined by his long history of anti-Latino legislation.  In addition to supporting SB1070, Saveethnicstudies.org explains that Horne “killed bilingual education, proposed legislation that targeted educators with strong foreign accents, and cited schools for providing education to undocumented students.”

After Horne left the position, John Huppenthal, a Tea Party extremist who ran his campaign on “stopping La Raza” became the new Superintendent.  Like Horne, Huppenthal also looks to demonize the ethnic studies program in order to fulfill his agenda to end it, and like Horne, he will push aside all contrary evidence and facts in order to accommodate his ideology.

After ordering an $110,000 independent audit of the ethnic studies program, Huppenthal declared the Ethnic Studies program illegal.  Citing the study, he argued that the program “promoted resentment towards a race, was designed primarily for a particular ethnic race and advocated ethnic solidarity.”

There’s just one major problem, the study he commissioned, which had not actually been released at the time of his press release, had found the exact opposite.  The study declared that the program was legal and did not violate any of 4 guidelines in HB2281.  In fact, as Jeff Biggers of the Huffington Post illustrated in one of his articles, the study found that:

MASD programs are designed to improve student achievement based on the audit team’s finding of valuable course descriptions aligned with state standards, commendable curricular unit and lesson plan design, engaging instruction practices, and collective inquiry strategies through Approved State Standards.

Huppenthal completely ignored the findings of the audit and instead went with his own personal assessment, which he has still failed to justify with actual evidence.

Despite these constant attacks on the TUSD ethnic studies program, it continues and shows positive results.  Students, who are in ethnic studies programs, including the one in Tucson, are more engaged, are more socially conscious and are more likely to succeed academically.  According to TUSD Director of Mexican American Studies Sean Arce, “The district has no other program that creates the success for students, particularly Latino students like we have in this program.”

Furthermore, Save Ethnic Studies explains that,

Tucson Unified School District’s Ethnic Studies and Mexican American Studies programs have reversed the bad trends. The dropout rate in this program is 2.5 percent, as opposed to 56 percent nationally. Students in the program significantly outperform their peers on the state’s standardized AIMS tests.

The Tucson program has definitely done tremendous work, especially in the face of so much ignorance and politically driven, misleading propaganda.  But the work they have done there and the success they have had with it is not unusual.  It is a consistent result that comes from allowing youth to break away from Euro-American education and learn more socially and culturally relevant material.  In addition, another recent study that looked at Ethnic Studies in more general terms, The Academic and Social Value of Ethnic Studies, found that all students, including white students, benefited from such courses greatly.  The study also pointed out that “lessons that teach about racism and successful challenges to it improve racial attitudes among white children.”

Given the evidence and the testimony by so many, it is hard to imagine that a single person could so easily circumvent democracy and facts and unilaterally determine the program is illegal, but that is exactly what the law was designed to do.  And it was designed this way because Horne, Huppenthal, Pearce and others see ethnic studies programs as a threat to the status quo in Arizona.

The true goal of the law is not to end ethnic solidarity or resentment as they argue, it is to depoliticize and disempower youth, in particular Latino youth.

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