PHOENIX, Ariz. -- Educators are worried that a new law banning ethnic studies in Arizona could have ripple effects beyond the Mexican American studies program in Tucson it was intended to target.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed HB 2281 into law on May 11, less than three weeks after she approved another controversial measure that makes it a state crime for a person to be an undocumented immigrant.
State superintendent of education Tom Horne, who is running for attorney general, is behind the push for the ethnic studies ban. He says the program teaches “ethnic chauvinism” and promotes “ethnic solidarity (among students) as opposed to treating them as individuals.”
Critics argue that the bill was designed without any review of the program it was attempting to target, and that it could open the door for arbitrary restrictions on curricula and books in all ethnic studies in the state.
The measure prohibits any school district from instructing classes that promote the overthrow of the U.S.government, promote resentment toward a race or advocate ethnic solidarity. But it doesn’t ban classes as long as they are open to all groups of students.
Educators from the Unified Tucson District, which has run the K-12 program for the last 14 years, say they are in compliance with the law, that their classes are open to all students and their curriculum does not promote resentment. The program includes a variety of classes that focus on Mexican American history and literature.
“The problem with this bill is that it creates an imposition on curriculum,” said Roberto Rodriguez, a board member of the Mexican American studies advisory board for the district. The professor, who teaches Mexican American studies at the University of Arizona in Tucson, was among a group of 15 people who were arrested May 12 at a state building in an act of civil disobedience in protest of the new law.
Rodriguez said Superintendent Horne never met with the educators that run the program.
The Anti-Defamation League of Arizona threw its weight in support of the Tucson program in a statement issued last week.
“After examining both sides of this more thoroughly than the Department of Education and the LegislatureCOMBINED, we concluded that the program does exactly what it was designed to do, provide Latino students a link to the learning process, a process from which many previously felt alienated. Incorporating students’ race or culture into the learning process should be encouraged, not prohibited.”
The ADL studied the issue for more than a year and concluded that “the program was not guilty of the most heinous allegations that have been leveled against it, something the Department of Education and Legislature would have discovered had they done their homework.”
In an interview with New America Media, Horne said he had received a number of complains about the ethnic studies program in Tucson and that he tried to find out more about it, but his planned visit to the school district was cancelled due to protests.
Horne’s opposition to the program began in 2007 after United Farm Worker activist Dolores Huerta made a comment during a public speaking event at Tucson High School that “Republicans hate Latinos.” In protest, Horne wrote a letter criticizing the La Raza Program and its use of certain books in the curriculum, including "Occupied America: A History of Chicanos," by Rodolfo Acuna, a professor and founder of the Chicano studies program at Cal State Northridge.
The state law may have been designed to crack down on a single program in the Tucson school district, but educators across the state say it will have far-reaching effects.
“This is another way of silencing others’ history,” said Myla Vicenti Carpio, an assistant professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona (ASU), voicing her personal opposition to the law. “For them to say, we don’t want ethnic studies, it means that these specific histories aren’t important and that they are threatening this narrative that America is great and doesn’t do anything wrong.”
Vicenti believes this has the potential to affect all teachings of ethnic studies. Despite the fact that there are provisions in the bill to exempt Native American studies, she believes these programs could still be affected outside reservations and when they are supported by state funding.
“It is important to teach indigenous history because it’s often left out of most history classes and also it is important to understand indigenous history prior to colonization,” she said.
Karen Leong, a scholar working on the Japanese Americans in Arizona Oral History Project, said the law is problematic because it is not clear how it will be interpreted.
Leong said that the law opens the doors to anyone on the board of the Department of Education to arbitrarily define what is considered to “promote the resentment toward a race or class of people.”
“If we think critically about U.S. policies, would that be considered anti-American?” asked Leong, who teaches students about the Japanese-American internment camps during World War II.
Teaching critical thinking is key to the La Raza program, said Rodriguez. The students who participate in the program have a 100 percent graduation rate and go on to college, he added.
About 1,500 students at six high schools are enrolled in the Tucson district's program. The district is 56 percent Hispanic, with nearly 31,000 Latino students.
Angelica Penaran, 17, a student in the Unified Tucson School District, said these classes have inspired her to continue her education at the university level and pursue a degree in Chicano studies.
“I don’t believe these laws that are being passed are following the American tradition of embracing other cultures and other ethnicities,” said Penaran.