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Ethnic Studies Ruling Escalates Arizona Schools Struggle

While students were on their holiday break, Arizona issued a disturbing wake-up call to anyone who thought the education system had evolved to reflect America’s diversity. In a legal challenge to a controversial law passed in 2010, an administrative law judge pummeled a flagship educational initiative by supporting restrictions on programs based on Latino history and culture.

The judge decided that the curriculum used in Tucson’s Mexican American studies programs was biased against white people, apparently because it advocates critical historical perspectives and emphasizes struggles of indigenous and Latino communities, as well as the links between that legacy and contemporary politics. The ruling comes as no surprise, as the struggle between the school district and school superintendent John Huppenthal has been dragging on for months. The focus now is on a pending federal lawsuit aimed at halting the law.

CNN quotes from ruling:

In Tuesday’s ruling, administrative law judge Lewis Kowal said the auditors observed only a limited number of classes. He added, “Teaching oppression objectively is quite different than actively presenting material in a biased, political, and emotionally charged manner.”

“Teaching in such a manner promotes social or political activism against the white people, promotes racial resentment, and advocates ethnic solidarity, instead of treating pupils as individuals,” Kowal wrote. He cited a lesson that taught students that the historic treatment of Mexican-Americans was “marked by the use of force, fraud and exploitation,” and a parent’s complaint that one of her daughters, who was white, was shunned by Latino classmates after a government course was taught “in an extremely biased manner.”

So to sum up, it is “extremely biased” to teach critical viewpoints of the oppression, displacement and systematic discrimination that Mexicans and other groups have encountered throughout U.S. history. Because for students to learn about the many atrocities strewn along the path of Manifest Destiny would upset the national narrative of continual social progress, rugged individualism, and free enterprise. And once the veneer of triumphalism begins to crack, students might start to use their often-neglected critical intellect to unravel myths of “personal responsibility” and “equal opportunity” that have propped up neoliberal dreams for the past few generations.

The ruling’s ideological rationale encapsulates the political fictions fueling ethnocentrism in public schools.  That’s precisely why many students yearn for education that pushes past negative media portrayals and stereotypes of people of color (and they’re willing to agitate for it). Tucson high school student Korina Lopez, whose father teachers in the district, told Democracy Now!, “It’s very important to me because I know that it teaches a deeper understanding of history and the things you learn. And it just gives you a whole new appreciation of your community and society.”

Ethnic studies in public schools has long been under siege. Though the programs have flourished, enrolling hundreds of elementary, middle and high school students, the law, HB 2281, aimed explicitly to penalize educators that have fought to introduce more critical pedagogy.


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According to the federal legal complaint filed by ethnic studies advocates and teachers this fall, the state’s then-school superintendent Tom Horne declared that the Mexican-American Studies Department of Tucson’s No. 1 unified school district “[p]romotes the overthrow of the United States Government.”

The witchhunt rhetoric surrounding the program reflects the overarching paradox of the state’s charge of “bias” in ethnic studies. A glance at the demographic structure of Tucson’s school system shows that individual opportunity doesn’t exactly thrive in communities riven by deeply rooted racial and economic segregation.

The Arizona government’s preference for “teaching oppression objectively” certainly plays out in ironic ways.  Authorities have no qualms displaying their own biases when it comes to policing schools and communities. The most glaring example is SB 1070, the law that would encourage the profiling and detention of suspected undocumented immigrants. The state has also marginalized teachers who fell short of “fluency” standards–i.e. people with Spanish accents who teach kids with limited English. At one school in Phoenix, reported the Wall Street Journal last year, “State auditors have reported to the district that some teachers pronounce words such as violet as ‘biolet,’ think as ‘tink’ and swallow the ending sounds of words, as they sometimes do in Spanish.”

If only more Arizona officials had been schooled in the very programs that they seek to outlaw. According to the Save Ethnic Studies campaign, the programs have proven effective not only at supporting academic performance in the conventional sense–higher graduation rates and test scores–but helping close the profound “achievement gaps” that plague low-income communities of color. The campaign stresses that the ethnic studies model incubated in Tucson has become a national model:

98 percent of the students say they do homework at night to keep up with the next day’s class.  95 percent discuss what their learning with their parents.  Students have given reports to the TUSD board, Pima County Board of Supervisors, the Arizona state legislature, the Black Congressional Caucus and the Hispanic Congressional Caucus.

“There’s a big myth up there that these classes are about immigration”, says Augustine Romero, Director of Student Equity at TUSD. “It’s actually about analyzing problems in the real world and addressing those problems by coming up with solutions.”

Analyzing problems in the real world and coming up with solutions. If officials think that’s anathema to a sound education, then they’ve given civil rights advocates the most principled argument yet for why ethnic studies is so vital for the next generation of community leaders.

Michelle Chen

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times. She is a regular contributor to the labor rights blog Working In These Times,, and Pacifica's WBAI. Her work has also appeared in Common Dreams, Alternet, Ms. Magazine, Newsday, and her old zine, cain.

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