Equity & Diversity

Racial Discrimination Was Behind Ethnic-Studies Courses Ban, Judge Rules

By The Associated Press — August 29, 2017 3 min read
Protesters gather to support the Tucson Unified School District after Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal announced earlier this week that the district violated state law by teaching its Mexican-American studies program. A state audit contradicts Huppenthal’s finding, saying “no observable evidence was present to suggest that any classroom within the Tucson Unified School District is in direct violation of the law."

Racism was behind an Arizona ban on ethnic studies that shuttered a popular Mexican-American Studies program, a federal judge has ruled, finding that the state enacted the ban with discriminatory intent.

U.S. District Judge A. Wallace Tashima had previously upheld most of the law in a civil lawsuit filed by students in the Tucson school district. But a federal appeals court, while upholding most of his ruling, sent the case back to trial to determine if the ban was enacted with racist intent.

The new trial was held in July.

The law prohibits courses that promote resentment toward a race or a class of people or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of treating people as individuals. A portion of the law that banned courses designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group was struck down.

In the ruling last week, Tashima said that the state violated students’ constitutional rights “because both enactment and enforcement were motivated by racial animus.” However, Tashima said he doesn’t know a remedy for the violation and has not issued a final judgment. Plaintiffs’ lawyers hoped he would throw out the law, which was enacted in 2010.

Officials Criticized

Tashima was critical in his ruling of former state schools chiefs Tom Horne and John Huppenthal, who railed against the ethnic-studies program and helped pass the law that ended it.

“Additional evidence shows that defendants were pursuing these discriminatory ends in order to make political gains. Horne and Huppenthal repeatedly pointed to their efforts against the MAS program in their respective 2011 political campaigns, including in speeches and radio advertisements. The issue was a political boon to the candidates,” Tashima wrote.

Huppenthal said he was not surprised by the ruling and said it was meaningless because the law is not likely to be enforced in the future.

“The concern about what was going on in those classes was very real,” he said.

His new concern “would be if they crank up all that stuff of teaching students that Caucasians are oppressors of Hispanics,” Huppenthal said.

Horne, a former state attorney general and a former leader of Arizona’s public schools, testified in July that he was troubled by what he described as radical instructors teaching students to be disruptive.

Horne also said he found contents of the curriculum to be racist and to make Latino students feel like they are victims. He took issue with a classroom that had a poster of Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

“You have a right to advocate for all those things, but not on the taxpayers’ dime in our public schools,” Horne said.

He denied that racism was behind the battle against the program and the law that ended it, saying he was a crusader against racism and that his parents were refugees from Nazi-invaded Poland.

Response to Ruling

In response to the latest court ruling, Horne said that Tashima’s decision promotes a program that “divides students by race and promotes ethnic chauvinism.”

“I believe it is a fundamental American ideal that we are all individuals, entitled to be judged by our knowledge and character, and not by what race we happen to have been born into,” he said in a statement.

The Tucson program began in 1998 and focused on Mexican-American history, literature, and art in an effort to keep Mexican-American students in school and engaged. Students who participated outperformed their peers in grades and standardized tests, advocates said.

Tucson’s school board officially dismantled the program in January 2012 to keep from losing state funding. The district had not responded to questions from the Associated Press about whether it would revive the program if the law is thrown out.

By 2015, the district was expanding a “culturally relevant” curriculum developed in the wake of a separate racial-desegregation lawsuit. Those courses are now taught at all district high schools, Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo said.

He said the district worked with the Arizona education department to ensure the courses don’t violate the state law and are “very scripted,” including offerings such as American history from an African-American perspective.

A version of this article appeared in the August 30, 2017 edition of Education Week as Federal Judge Finds ‘Racial Animus’ in Ariz. Ethnic-Studies Ban

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