The War on Ethnic Studies

A four-year-old hate campaign by Arizona state superintendent Tom Horne finally nailed its target last week, when Republican Governor Jan Brewer signed a new law that could shutter ethnic studies programs in public schools.

Fresh on the heels of Arizona’s new immigration law, which requires law enforcement to detain anybody who looks Hispanic, this latest measure takes aim at the Mexican-American Studies Program at the Tucson Unified School District, a popular skills-building program that engages Hispanic students by teaching government and history from a Latino perspective.

Despite this latest blow, school officials in Tucson have said they’re determined to keep their classes open, and the Arizona Education Association also is working with NEA to examine the law for possible challenge.

The new law makes it illegal for public schools to have any courses or classes that promote the overthrow of the United States government or foster resentment toward any race or class of people. It also forbids programs “designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.”

But proponents of Raza Studies say that isn’t them at all. “We’re not trying to overthrow the government! We’re trying to learn about our people,” Tucson student Jacobo Ramirez told local television reporters last week. “Everything we’re trying to do here is because we want to learn,” he said.

If state officials weren’t so full of resentment themselves, perhaps they might see that the program actually teaches critical thinking skills, and the value of service learning and civic engagement. It engages its students through “authentic love, respect, and care for all students, by all students,” said Tucson teacher Norma Gonzalez.

What students actually get is an “amplified perspective of history,” and a better understanding of their world, Gonzalez says. “They can learn about their history in a manner that helps them to discover their ancestral roots.” And, with that, they develop the “self respect and stability…critical for respect of other cultures, traditions and various ways of perceiving life.”

Tucson school officials agree and have said they have no intention of shutting down the program, even though it means risking 10 percent of its state funding. “We believe these classes are meaningful and they do a lot of good for students, and they are in full compliance with the law that was signed yesterday,” Acting Superintendent Maggie Shafer told National Public Radio last week.

“From everything I’ve seen, [the programs] empower kids to take charge of their own destiny, gain a sense of the value of their own existence and become more determined to be well-educated contributing members of society,” said Judy Burns, president of the Tucson governing board, to The New York Times.

The Mexican-American program is more than a decade old and it came about as part of the settlement in a discrimination suit filed by African-American and Latino parents in Tucson. In a court-approved settlement, the Tucson district agreed to new hiring practices, better data management of suspension and expulsion rates, and new ethnic studies programs. In the final plan, approved by a federal judge last year, the district pledged to expand those classes – because they’re so popular.

The classes, which also include African-American literature classes, are open to all students, regardless of race or ethnicity, but enrollment tends to be more popular among the ethnic or racial groups featured in the curriculum. At Tucson High, about 66 percent of students are Hispanic.

All too frequently, Hispanics lag between White students in graduation rate, but the Hispanic students at Tucson have an 84 percent graduation rate. (The district’s overall graduation rate for Hispanic kids is 76 percent; the state of Arizona’s is around 60 percent.) Those gaps are closing in Tucson because of the ethnic studies programs, its proponents say. Specific test score data from Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) shows that students who take these classes outperform any other student group.

And the anecdotal evidence can’t be discounted either. “For some students it was their participation that provided them the will to stay in school and pursue higher education,” Gonzalez said.

Still, the stand-out graduation rate at Tucson High – or the passionate engagement by students in the ethnic-studies program – was no match for a massive hostile media campaign, orchestrated, at least in part, by anti-immigration activists who likened ethnic-studies students to Hitler Youth. In blog posts and editorials, right-wing opponents screamed that Raza students hate America and their teachers have indoctrinated them in “terror” campaigns.

“It’s a revolutionary curriculum – an outrageous abuse of taxpayers’ funds,” one opponent called it.

And, oh yes, that was Superintendent Horne, who has been angry with the program for years, according to The New York Times — ever since students walked out on a speech by his deputy, who had hoped to refute an earlier speaker who said Republicans hate Latinos.

Speaking of revolution, Horne and Brewer are running for election this year. And, at the Tucson graduation this month, students will receive their diplomas – and new voter registration forms.