Liberty Alerts, Education Reporter
Shortly after making national headlines for a new law cracking down on illegal immigration, Arizona passed HB 2281, another bill that some critics are decrying as racist. But Tom Horne, superintendent of public instruction for Arizona and a primary proponent, insists the bill is intended to curb racism.
The measure targets an ethnic studies program in the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD), most particularly some Mexican-American classes known as Raza (“race”) studies. Specifically, the bill prohibits school districts from teaching courses that encourage the overthrow of the U.S. government, promote resentment of a particular race or class of people, or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of treating students as individuals. Districts that don’t abide by the law may have as much as 10% of their budgets withheld by the State Department of Education.
The sponsor of the bill, Representative Steve Montenegro, is an immigrant from El Salvador and a freshman Republican from Phoenix. His concern is that students “not be taught any resentment or hatred toward any race or any class of people” (Associated Press, 5-3-10). The bill does not prohibit ethnic studies in general or the teaching of historical facts about the oppression of a particular group of people based on ethnicity, race, or class.
The bill’s opponents say the study programs allow students to learn about the role of ethnic groups in history and culture. “If students see themselves in the curriculum, they know that school is for and about them,” said Sean Arce, director of the TUSD Mexican-American Studies program.
Some accuse Superintendent Horne of pushing the measure to gain support for his current run for attorney general, but the bill’s passage is actually the culmination of a battle he has been fighting for years. In 2007 Horne penned an open letter to Tucson citizens alerting them to what was being taught and calling for action.
Horne cited two Hispanic teachers familiar with the program as witnesses in the letter. Hector Ayala, a Mexican-born English teacher at TUSD Cholla High School, reported that the director of Raza studies taught a “separatist political agenda.” Ayala also said the director accused him of being the “white man’s agent” and told students not to “fall for the white man’s traps.”
The other teacher, John Ward, wrote a piece about his experience in the Raza studies program for the Tucson Citizen in May 2008. Ward explained that he was asked to co-teach a U.S. history class for the department as a “convenient way of circumventing the rules,” because the other instructor, Sean Arce, lacked teacher certification at the time. Ward claims Arce taught students that America is a racist nation and said they should interpret social, political and economic events through the lens of their oppression. “[The instructors] are telling students they are victims and that they should be angry and rise up,” Ward told a columnist with the Arizona Republic in 2008.
Students were also told, according to Ward, that police officers are “an extension of the white power structure” used to “keep minorities in their ghettos,” and that few Hispanic students were in advanced placement classes because white teachers don’t want them to get ahead. Arce also reportedly claimed that California, New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona are part of “Aztlan,” an ancient home of the Aztecs and the rightful property of indigenous Mexicans rather than the U.S.
When it became clear the course did not fulfill state requirements for U.S. History as purported, Ward told the ethnic studies department he “refused to be complicit in a curriculum that engendered racial hostility . . . discounted any virtues in Western civilization, and taught disdain for American sovereignty.” Department officials responded by removing him from the class and calling him a racist, despite his Hispanic heritage. They also accused him of being a vendido, the Spanish term for “sellout.”
Ward also contended that the Raza studies department operates with “much impunity” due to their “powerful allies in TUSD, on its governing board and in the U.S. House of Representatives.”
Superintendent Horne grew concerned about the program back in 2006. After learning that labor activist and Democratic Socialist party member Dolores Huerta told the entire student body of Tucson Magnet School that “Republicans hate Latinos,” he asked his Deputy, Margaret Garcia Dugan, to address the students. Dugan, a Latina and a Republican, urged students to think for themselves and avoid stereotypes. A small group of Raza students rudely interrupted her talk, and when their principal asked them to sit down and listen, they defiantly walked out, according to Horne. He said he believes the students learned their defiant attitude not at home, but from their teachers.
The TUSD website describes the Mexican American (Raza) studies curriculum as “counter-hegemonic” and based on the teaching theories of Paolo Friere. Friere’s book Pedagogy of the Oppressed is a staple in the curriculum; it asserts that non-whites must come to understand that they are oppressed, learn to give voice to their grievances, and resist the assimilation imposed upon them by the “dominant” white Western culture. Students also read Occupied America, which approvingly quotes a speech Jose Angel Gutierrez gave in Texas calling on Chicanos to “kill the gringo.”
Nonetheless, district officials deny that the program promotes resentment, and they believe it is in compliance with the new law. Furthermore, they say, the classes are a key part of a court-ordered desegregation program. “We don’t do those things [we are accused of], so in that sense, I do not believe it directly affects us,” asserted Arce.
A small group of students, faculty and others protested the bill both before and after Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed it. Superintendent Horne brought a picture printed in the Los Angeles Times (5-8-10) of protestors dressed in the revolutionary garb of Brown Berets in front of Tucson High Magnet School to one press conference. “[This is] a visual image that confirms what we’ve been told by teachers and ex-teachers that La Raza studies conveys a revolutionary message, a separatist message, a message that makes students hostile to the United States,” he said.
Arce countered that those dressed as Brown Berets were not students, but adults from other communities. He did concede that students leaving their classrooms in protest were pumping their fists, similar to protestors on the cover of Chicano!, another textbook students read in Raza courses. The book also includes pictures of students walking out of school in protest, and demonstrators wearing brown berets inspired by Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara.
Arce would not admit that student protesters were inspired by their classes, however. “These [textbook accounts] are simply historical episodes,” he argued. When asked by KGUN9 television reporters if there was any chance students were emulating what they saw in the textbook, Arce responded, “Not whatsoever.” (KGUN9.com, 5-13-10)
Arizona Republic columnist Doug MacEachern said he doesn’t think the new law will change anything being taught in the classes. “No one at TUSD — not the school district’s activist school board, nor the pliant school administrators, nor, certainly, the confident, savvy political operatives masquerading as ‘educators’ in the classrooms — intends to abide by the new edict handed down from Phoenix. No one.”
MacEachern said ethnic studies staff members are already “brazenly” flouting district policy by using the school’s email system to organize rallies against the new bill. He also said the state would find it difficult to prove ethnic studies teachers are promoting racial division and hatred of America because “nearly everyone in the district is denying the program is what it is.” (Arizona Republic, 5-22-10)
“What’s more,” MacEachern opined in an earlier column, “the ethnic studies zealots have convinced a good-hearted, if ill-informed, public that they seek merely to inculcate a sense of ethnic pride among the poor and downtrodden.” He called the faculty and administrators of the program “masters of propaganda” and said the district’s claim that ethnic studies students outperform other minorities is a “sham.” (Arizona Republic, 5-4-10)
The TUSD ethnic studies program, which is the umbrella for Mexican American, African-American, Pan-Asian and Native American programs, has been in place for 14 years and has an annual budget exceeding $2.5 million. Elementary and middle school students are also exposed to the curriculum in the 56% Hispanic district.
The bill gives the state school superintendent or the Board of Education the authority to determine whether a school’s program violates the law. HB 2281 does not take effect until the end of the year; opponents have already promised legal challenges.
Used with the permission of Eagle Forum.