Banned Ethnic Studies Program in Arizona Galvanizes Nationwide Support and Inspires Programs in Other States

By: Adelita Medina

The popular Mexican proverb: “they tried to bury us, but they didn’t know we were seeds/”Quisieron enterrarnos, pero no sabían que éramos semillas” can aptly be applied to the flurry of pro-ethnic studies sentiments and activities that sprouted in many parts of the country after the Tucson United School District (TUSD) was forced to close down its Mexican American Studies program, in 2012. Among the many solidarity acts that were inspired are the following:

  • The Teacher Activist Groups (TAG), a national coalition of grassroots teacher organizing groups, coordinated a month of solidarity work called No History is Illegal, in support of Tucson’s Mexican American Studies (MAS) Program, that called on members to keep the ideas and values of MAS alive by teaching them in their classrooms, community centers, houses of worship and in their homes. TAG also posted MAS lesson plans on its website.
  • The Executive Council of the Modern Language Association issued a statement in support of ethnic studies and condemning the actions of the Arizona legislators by charging that: “…whenever attacks on ethnic studies are mounted by public officials, we recognize a clear threat to academic freedom and intellectual inquiry. To pursue scholarly inquiries into the histories and cultures of the United States, teachers must be free from legislative and judicial interference. Allowing state officials to declare legitimate branches of history and culture out of bounds—to the point of seizing and sequestering books, as was done in the Tucson Unified School District—is inimical to the principles on which the United States was founded.”
  • Veterans of Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say, founded in 1998 by Texas author and educator, Tony Diaz, united to become the Librotraficantes. They attracted national attention caravanning throughout the south west holding book readings, setting up book clubs, creating “underground libraries,” and distributing donated copies of the books that had been boxed and banned in Arizona.
  • Scores of articles and essays have been written in a wide variety of venues—from local and national newspapers, to websites and scholarly journals.

The conservative, anti-immigrant legislators and educators who led the campaign to discredit and then eliminate the Mexican-American studies (MAS) program in Tucson could not have imagined that the destructive actions they took in that one school district would invigorate the movement for ethnic studies in multiple states, including California, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. Their actions also met with wide spread criticism from educators and civil rights activists everywhere. Even United Nations human rights experts criticized then Governor Jan Brewer after she signed into law HB 2281 which banned the MAS program.

The following is a brief round-up of actions taken in various states to introduce or strengthen ethnic studies:

  • In California, in September 2016, Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 2016 (AB-2016) which will establish a model ethnic studies curriculum for all schools in the state. The curriculum will be developed with participation from ethnic studies faculty at California universities and public school teachers with experience teaching ethnic studies. The target date for the adoption of the model curriculum is November 2019.
    In 2010, a coalition of students, parents, teachers, and community advocates had organized to win a pilot Ethnic Studies course in five San Francisco high schools. Four years later, Sandra Fewer, a San Francisco Board of Education Commissioner and former parent organizer authored a landmark resolution to expand the curriculum. The policy was passed, providing access to Ethnic Studies classes for every San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) high school student. In Los Angeles, after seeing the Tucson protests in the news, Jose Lara, a social-studies teacher wondered why his district didn’t have its own Mexican American Studies course. “What are we doing in our classrooms?” Lara thought. “What type of awareness are we bringing?” He said the ban in Arizona lit a fire for everyone here to think, “Hey, we should be doing something about this.” And so they did.
  • A measure before the Colorado state legislature would strengthen the existing law which requires that a government class cover “the history and culture of minorities, including but not limited to American Indians, Hispanic Americans and African Americans, which has been a graduation requirement for a decade. The proposal would create an ethnically diverse commission to help school districts develop a curriculum.
  • The Albuquerque Public Schools will roll out ethnic studies courses at all 13 of its high schools in August 2017, joining a growing nationwide movement to make education more inclusive for minority students.
  • In Texas, after the success of the book-smuggling tour, Diaz and his fellow Librotraficantes started calling for the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) to include a dual-credit Mexican-American Studies course when the state agency took up the question of new course design. The idea was espoused by Ruben Cortez, a member of the SBOE, who eventually convinced his fellow board members to allow schools to begin including ethnic studies courses. The Board also issued a call for a Mexican-American history book to be used to teach an ethnic studies class. Unfortunately, the one lone textbook that was submitted to the Board for consideration, “Mexican American Heritage,” was found by a committee comprised of professors and high school teachers to be racist and inaccurate and to not meet basic standards and guiding principles in the history profession. After months of assessment and protests, the Board rejected the book and issued a proclamation advertising for bids for ethnic studies textbooks for 2018. Despite the controversy which developed over the racist textbook, educators believe offering Mexican-American studies to Texas students could help stem the state’s high Latino dropout rate and they are working to build momentum to support the course offerings across the state, where more than half of public school students are Latinos. Their efforts seem to be paying off. In June 2016, for example, a Summit on Implementing Mexican American Studies drew more than 200 people from various parts of the state who set as one of their goals the increasing of ethnic studies programs in Texas. Organizers said the summit was the largest ever statewide meeting on Mexican American Studies in public schools.
  • And in Arizona, the fight continues to bring back the banned ethnic studies curriculum that had helped to make an important difference in the education and accomplishments of many Mexican-American students, who in prior decades had been underachieving or dropping out of school.

At the present time, part of the battle is being waged in the courts. In 2015, a federal appeals court ordered a trial to determine the legality of the law that banned the MAS program and to assess whether it intentionally discriminates against Latinos. The court ruling states that if there is evidence of discriminatory intent in the law’s design or implementation, the measure would be unconstitutional. No date has been set yet for the trial, but Richard Martinez, one of the lawyers who brought the lawsuit against Arizona officials, said that “probably the most important part of the court’s ruling is that the state of Arizona will now have to face discovery in a trial to be held accountable for the creation and enactment of the law.”

As of July 2013, Tucson schools are required to offer a “culturally relevant curriculum,” as mandated by a court order in a federal desegregation lawsuit brought on behalf of Latino and Black students after decades of segregation and racial discrimination, but critics say the content has been much “watered down.”

  • At another level, after leaving TUSD, several MAS teachers, including Curtis Acosta, Sean Arce, Anita Fernandez, Norma Gonzalez and Jose Gonzales created the Xican@ Institute for Training and Organizing (XITO) to help support the Latino community through teacher preparation, social justice pedagogy and community organizing. XITO provides teacher training (K-12 and university level) in researched best practices in culturally, socially, and historically responsive approaches that are highly effective with traditionally marginalized and underserved student populations, specifically Chicano youth.

History and Future of Mexican-American and other Ethnic Studies Programs

The banned MAS program in Tucson, as many other ethnic studies programs in the country, had its roots in the Chicano/a and Civil Rights movements of the 60s and 70s, when activists and educators saw them as a way to advance people of color’s perspectives on history, culture, art and literature. Ethnic Studies professor and author, Evelyn Hu-DeHart, asserts that “ethnic studies seek to recover and reconstruct the histories of those Americans whom history has neglected; to identify and credit their contributions to the making of U.S. society and culture; to chronicle protest and resistance; and to establish alternative values and visions, institutions and cultures.” In a 2011 Report, the National Education Association (NEA) states simply and straightforwardly that “ethnic studies curricula exist, in part, because students of color have demanded an education that is relevant, meaningful, and affirming of their identities.”

The MAS department in Tucson was created in the late 1990s. In an article, he wrote for Voices in Urban Education, Curtis Acosta says that “MAS was born from generations of systemic failure in educating Chican@/ Latin@ students in the Tucson Unified School District and the dogged determination of our elders and the rest of our community to ensure an equal educational experience for our youth.”1 Acosta, who helped design the MAS program at TUSD, and who taught a course in literature, says that his classrooms were a space of empowerment, liberation, freedom, and autonomy and that as a literature teacher, it was crucial for him to find engaging, provocative literature that was relevant to the lives and experiences of my students. “I knew that my students deserved better than the literature anthologies that crowded the bookshelves at my school. I believed that I could build a literature curriculum that was not only rigorous and challenging, but beautiful and intoxicating.”

Today, after decades of practical experience and extensive research, proponents of ethnic studies in public schools can point to a variety of positive results, including how these programs have had a positive impact on student academic engagement, achievement, and empowerment, have helped them develop critical thinking skills, and promoted respect and understanding between students of different races and ethnicities. At the college level, the field of ethnic studies has produced a remarkable amount of innovative scholarship, much of which is creative and original.

So why then has the offering of ethnic studies been met with so much controversy and hostility?

Despite the abundance of evidence about the positive impacts of ethnic studies, many efforts around the country to introduce or expand these course offerings have been confronted with aggressive opposition. The programs and teachers have been labeled “anti-American” and accused of teaching divisiveness. Legislators in some states have proposed cutting existing courses altogether, arguing that they are “harmful” and “dysfunctional” and that they create social cleavages, giving the impression that none existed before.

Tom Horne, the Superintendent of Public Instruction, who led the campaign to destroy the MAS program in Arizona, charged that “ethnic studies in the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) teaches a kind of destructive ethnic chauvinism that the citizens of Tucson should no longer tolerate.” He further stated that “Mexican-American students should be taught that this is the land of opportunity, and that if they work hard they can achieve their goals. They should not be taught that they are oppressed.” His successor, John Huppenthal later chose to ignore the findings of the Cabrera Report and the Cambium Audit, two major studies that found that students’ participation in the MAS program led to higher graduation rates and to higher scores on standard Math, Reading and Writing tests, than for nonparticipants. Nonetheless, Huppenthal fought to keep the findings from being used as evidence in court, indicating his office’s “discriminatory intent” in abolishing the program.

Augustine F. Romero, who was the Director of Student Equity and Co-Founder of the Social Justice Project in the TUSD, response to the attackers in Arizona declared: “Recently, my colleagues and I have been called racist because we encourage our students to ask questions about the impact of race and/or racism upon their social condition, their impact on the history of our country, and their potential impact upon our future. The irony and hypocrisy are that [the accusers] are saying that because we illuminate their acts of white privilege, their acts of oppression and their acts of racism. They would prefer that we simply acquiesce to those actions and accept them as part of their malevolent and insular perception of patriotism or even what is considered [by them] to be American.”2 Or perhaps the accusers think that, as University of Arizona Professor Julian Kunnie says, “the issues of racism and oppression and even racial and ethnic conflict will disappear if any mention of them is hidden from view and scrutiny.”
Teaching Tolerance, a Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, contends that “the conflict over ethnic studies is equal parts xenophobia and political ideology, with white resentment and anxiety stirring the pot. While opponents target ethnic studies courses as divisive, they disregard how classes, textbooks and materials oversaturated with European and Anglo-American viewpoints are polarizing for non-white students.” Many concerned educators and community activists, both within and outside of Arizona, see the attack on ethnic studies in Tucson as a local struggle with broader implications. Some say that the legislation used to abolish the MAS program—State House Bill (HB 2281)—which was designed by conservative legislators and educators, is a blueprint for a larger national agenda—an overall anti-immigrant package of laws, policies and practices to intimidate and attack immigrants. Part of the method of operation of these conservative critics is to demonize, label as un-American, and question the patriotism of those who hold opposing views. And they have demonstrated that they will use whatever extreme measures they deem necessary to silence them.
It is important to note that HB 2281 came at the tail end of State Senate Bill (SB 1070) which led to rampant racial profiling by authorizing Arizona police to detain any individual who did not provide documentation of evidence of US citizenship, particularly targeting Latino persons and other immigrants of color as part of an “immigration reform” initiative. Nine other states filed papers supporting Arizona’s immigration law, and two dozen copycat bills were introduced in state legislatures across the country, underscoring the reality that Arizona played a lead role in advocating hostility and resentment against immigrants.

Attacks on Public Education May Threaten Its Future
Educators, students and community activists are feeling particularly apprehensive and vigilant about what new steps the Trump administration will take to turn back the clock on gains made by people of color in such areas as civil rights, voting rights, and education, given his choice of cabinet members with conservative and reactionary beliefs and histories. For example, Betsy DeVos, his choice for Secretary of Education, has spent decades and millions of dollars persuading people that public schools and colleges are failing miserably, and advocating for vouchers and charter schools. She is expected to cut funding for public education, making opportunities more unequal for the 90 percent of children who attend public schools.

Acknowledging that our public-school system needs improvements, defenders of public education say that the myth that public schools are a disaster was created and relentlessly promoted by charter school lobbyists such as DeVos. They contend that the future of the country is directly linked to how well the 90 percent of students in public schools are being educated, because they will be the nation’s future workforce, scientists, doctors, and political leaders. So, national attention and resources must be focused on making public schools as good as they can be.

Those who oppose privatizing education, such as social activist and author of the book, The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein, say that educational research proves that “school choice” — state vouchers for charter and private schools — is not only ineffective in addressing the inequalities of public education, but it undermines “the gains of the civil rights movements, which guaranteed all children the same standard of education.” They also contend that “School Choice” is frequently an excuse to maintain racial and economic segregation, especially in states with large Black and Latino populations.

Educators, parents, and students across the country are readying themselves to defend their schools and the social and economic future of the majority of America’s children.

1 “Although empowering Latin@s is one of our major intentions, many diverse youth have benefited from our classes – including Asiya Mir, my co-author for this article, who is a Pakistani-American.” Curtis Acosta, Empowering Young People to Be Critical Thinkers: The Mexican American Studies Program in Tucson, Voices in Urban Education, Annenberg Institute for School Reform, 2012.
2 The Hypocrisy of Racism: Arizona’s Movement towards State-Sanctioned Apartheid, Journal of Educational Controversy, Vol. 6, No. 1, 2012.

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