Arizona has taken another step backwards, critics say, after Republican Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law a new bill May 11 that aims to ban ethnic studies in the state’s schools.
The move comes less than a month after Brewer signed a controversial anti-immigrant measure that grants local police authority to question people who they suspect to be undocumented.
Both laws have caused widespread protests and nationwide boycotts against the state, including international condemnation by Latin American presidents and the United Nations.
The “ethnic studies bill” prohibits schools from teaching classes that: “promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, promote resentment toward a race or class of people, are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group,” and “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of students as individuals.”
The bill was written to target the Chicano, or Mexican American, studies program in the Tucson school system, said Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Horne. Horne, a Republican, has been trying to end the program for years saying it promotes “ethnic chauvinism.” He is also running for attorney general.
Speaking to KGUN 9, a local television station in Tucson, Horne said, “Students are being taught a revolutionary curriculum and it’s an outrageous abuse of tax payer funds.”
Horne pointed to a picture of young people dressed in “Brown Beret attire” and cited it as evidence.
“This is a protest of my bill by students and teachers at Tucson High School and as you can see they’re dressed in revolutionary clothing,” he said. Horne proceeded to say that such behavior confirms that the ethnic studies program in the school system “conveys a revolutionary message, a separatist message, a message that makes students hostile to the United States.”
Tucson’s Unified School District is 56 percent Latino, with nearly 31,000 Latino students. The program offers specialized courses in African American, Mexican American and Native American studies that focus on history, literature and social justice.
For example, in the Mexican American Studies program, an American history course explores the role of Latinos in the Vietnam War, and a literature course emphasizes Latino authors.
Sean Arce, director of the Mexican American studies department in the Tucson school district, said, “When students see themselves in the curriculum it is a validation of who they are and as a result they become engaged in the educational process and as a result of that we have increased literacy rates.”
Writing in the Huffington Post Andre Segura, an attorney with American Civil Liberties Union, said the ethnic studies law has serious potential to deprive students of the opportunity to learn about Arizona’s and this nation’s rich and diverse cultural history.
The law also raises serious First Amendment concerns, and rather than fostering the intellectual growth of its students, Arizona is attempting to dictate which political, cultural, and national views are orthodox, says Segura.
“Will students not be able to learn about our nation’s history of slavery,” he asks.
“Or if slavery is taught, will teachers be prohibited from teaching that slave owners were predominantly white because it may cause some sort of resentment? Could students be prohibited from learning about Cesar Chavez and his efforts to improve the working conditions of farm laborers who were predominantly Latino?”
Segura adds, “Arizona should be reminded of its duty to instill in its students our nation’s democratic values, including freedom of speech and a respect for other cultures, religions, and viewpoints.”
Officials with the Tucson school district, including Judy Burns, president of the district’s governing body, say the program benefits students and promotes critical thinking. The program doesn’t promote resentment, and they believe it would comply with the new law.
Burns said she has no intention of ending the program, which offers classes from elementary school through high school and is open to all students.
Meanwhile as much as 10 percent of state funding could be withheld for school districts that don’t comply with the new law, which goes into effect Dec. 31.
Ethnic studies programs allow students to learn about the historical and cultural contributions minorities have made in U.S. history, supporters say. They emphasize inclusion and acceptance and builds knowledge about historically disenfranchised communities, not hate or separatism. The history of creating and implementing such curriculum was itself a civil rights struggle against racism and segregation, they note. And the need for such programs that counter racial prejudice and discrimination remains to be a current battle in school systems across the country, they add.