Is Arizona's Mexican American Studies Ban Unconstitutional? Federal Judge Expected To Weigh In Soon

By Carrie Jung
Published: Wednesday, August 16, 2017 - 2:25am
Updated: Wednesday, August 16, 2017 - 6:23pm

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(Photo by Steve Shadley - KJZZ)
Tucson Unified Schools District office in Tucson, Arizona.

In the late 1990s the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) launched its Mexican American Studies (MAS) program in an effort to close a wide achievement gap among minority students. The elective programming included classes in Mexican American literature and history.  

TIMELINE: See Major Events In The Dispute

"It was one of the most fruitful times as an educator that one can ever imagine," said Curtis Acosta, a former TUSD high school teacher and MAS instructor. "Every year I would get some students saying this is the last chance I’m giving school ... so they were doing it out of blind faith that something about their culture or themselves, as I would say, would resuscitate hope in their experience."  

Acosta was there when the district developed the curriculum. And he said the impact he saw in students was dramatic. Acosta said that attendance had gone through the roof and so did graduation ratees.

And while those observations were later supported by a more scientific University of Arizona study, not everyone believed this program was good for students. 

"The Legislature and the Tucson community was getting a lot of feedback that things were not right in those classes," said John Huppenthal, a former state lawmaker. He also served as the superintendent of public instruction from 2011 to 2015.    

Some Arizona Republicans, including Huppenthal, said teachers in Tucson’s Mexican American program were breeding resentment against white people. Citing a time he visited a class, Huppenthal said he heard the instructor describe Benjamin Franklin as a racist.  

"The idea that you’re going to racimize the classroom, that you’re going to create a construct where Caucasians are the oppressors and Hispanics are the oppressed and you teach them that history is oppression of minorities by Caucasians," Huppenthal said. "Which isn’t true." 

The situation hit a flashpoint around 2006 and 2007. In an open letter to the citizens of Tucson, Tom Horne, who was the superintendent of public instruction at that time, recounted a situation at the Tucson High Magnet School where students protested and walked out on a speech by his deputy. She visited the school to refute allegations by labor rights activist Dolores Huerta a few months earlier that “Republicans hate Latinos."

(Photo by Steve Shadley - KJZZ)
Tom Horne

In his letter, Horne said he believed the students learned what he called rude behavior from their “Raza teachers." Horne later used the example when testifying before the House Education Committee in 2010, when House Bill 2281 was first introduced. 

"This is one of my most profound objections to this program," Horne said to the committee. "If students are taught that the way to deal with disagreement is to be rude in the way I observed. They will be unsuccessful adults." 

Specifically, HB 2281 prohibited programs that “promote resentment toward a race or class of people” and “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of treatment of pupils as individuals.”

The bill was ultimately signed into law. And while there were other types of ethnic studies courses in the state, TUSD’s Mexican American Studies program was the only one found to be in violation.  

The school board voted to shut the program down in 2012 to avoid losing millions of dollars in funding. Protests erupted during the process.

But that wasn’t the end of this story.

The students filed a lawsuit claiming HB 2281 was unconstitutional. And while the courts have upheld the law, an appeals court ultimately sent it back to district court for a full trial to discern whether the lawmakers who created it were motivated by racial discrimination.  

That decision is expected soon. And while we don’t know yet what the result will be, many argue that this fight has already made a lasting impact. Because this issue was so highly publicized, more school districts in several states began offering these high school courses.

In Los Angeles, ethnic studies is now a required course. And some school districts in states such as Texas, Nevada, New Mexico and Washington have also made similar courses available to their high school students.

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