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Former Tucson School Superintendant Tom Horne

Former Tucson School Superintendant Tom Horne

Arizona passed a law in 2010 that bans schools from teaching ethnic studies. Believing such classes promoted “ethnic chauvinism,” former state schools superintendent and the law’s sponsor Tom Horne sought to ban any class that are “designed primarily for students of a particular race or that promote resentment toward a certain ethnic group.” His primary target: the Tucson Unified School District, which offers classes in African-American, Mexican-American and Native-American studies. Insisting that the Mexican-American program taught Latino students “that they are oppressed by white people,” Horne equated the program to the Jim Crow era. “It’s just like the old South, and it’s long past time that we prohibited it,” he said.

Under the law, the state can withhold 10 percent of funding for any school district that refuses to change its courses. Last Friday, the current state schools superintendent John Huppenthal followed through, holding back $15 million a year from Tucson district. Eleven teachers and two students filed suit to prevent the law from taking effect, but on Tuesday, U.S. Circuit Court Judge A. Wallace Tashima refused to grant the injunction but ruled that the students could challenge the law on First Amendment grounds. Thus, the Tuscon district’s school board suspended the Mexican-American studies department:

School Board member Adelita Grijalva

School Board member Adelita Grijalva

The Governing Board of the Tucson Unified School District voted late Tuesday to suspend immediately the Mexican-American studies department, marking a turning point in a yearlong controversy over a new state law banning certain ethnic studies.

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“The district shall revise its social studies core curriculum to increase its coverage of Mexican-American history and culture, including a balanced presentation of diverse viewpoints on controversial issues. The end result shall be a single common social studies core sequence through which all high school students are exposed to diverse viewpoints,” the governing board said in a statement.

“The district shall study and bring to the board new measures designed to narrow the achievement gaps for traditionally underserved and economically disadvantaged students,” the board said.

Opponents of the law noted that Huppenthal’s own audit of the program actually praised the classes and found “no observable evidence” that the classes violated the law. Nonetheless, an administrative law judge insisted that the program’s curriculum was teaching Latino history “in a biased, political, and emotionally charged manner,” thus spurring Huppenthal’s decision to withhold funds.

School Board member Adelita Grijalva argued that the law was unconstitutional and reflected the “anti-immigrant political climate in the Arizona statehouse.” “This is not a militarized group that want to overthrow the government,” she said, urging the board to preserve the program and appeal the decision. “This is a group that wants their children to understand about about their culture and their role in our American history and our lives.” The final vote was 4 to 1, with Grijalva offering the sole objection.

tanya somanader

Tanya Somanader
Think Progress