Law & Courts

Tucson Officials Stand by Ethnic-Studies Classes

By Mary Ann Zehr — January 04, 2011 4 min read
On his last day as Arizona's schools chief, Tom Horne points to quotations from textbooks used in an ethnic-studies class in Tucson. Mr. Horne informed Tucson school officials last week of his determination that such classes violate a new state law.

In this video from September 2010, Tucson High School students contest charges that ethnic-studies courses teach minority students that they are victims.

On Jan. 3, his last day as superintendent of public instruction in Arizona, Tom Horne announced he had found the Tucson district in violation of a new law that bars public schools from teaching courses that are designed for a particular ethnic group or promote ethnic solidarity. He said the district has 60 days to stop teaching Mexican-American studies or it would lose 10 percent of its state funds. Mr. Horne estimated the district could lose $14.9 million if it doesn’t comply, but the law permits the district to appeal a determination of noncompliance.

“It is fundamentally wrong to divide students up according to their racial group and teach them separately,” wrote Mr. Horne, who was leaving after two terms as state superintendent to become the state’s attorney general.

Meanwhile, John Huppenthal, who replaced Mr. Horne as state schools chief the same day, indicated he is likely to keep up the pressure on the district. He issued a statement saying he agrees with Mr. Horne’s finding that the Mexican-American ethnic-studies program violates the new state law if the program is the same as it was when he visited it in fall 2009. “My firsthand, classroom encounter clearly revealed an unbalanced, politicized, and historically inaccurate view of American history being taught,” Mr. Huppenthal, a former state legislator, said in the statement.

In response to Mr. Horne’s determination letter, John J. Pedicone, who took over as superintendent of the 60,000-student Tucson Unified district last week, posted a letter on the district’s website saying the administration “supports its ethnic-studies programs, and we are encouraged by the real and lasting impact that these departments provide to [district] students.” Mr. Pedicone also said the district will uphold the state’s laws, but he did not single out the law regarding ethnic studies, which went into effect Dec. 31.

The district’s school board, likewise, has reiterated its support for the classes, which have been taught in Tucson schools since 1998. Anticipating Mr. Horne’s announcement, board President Judy Burns sent a letter Dec. 30 to him and Mr. Huppenthal. While urging “a collaborative approach to resolving issues raised by the new law,” the letter also includes excerpts from a resolution approved by the board in May that contends Tucson Unified does not teach ethnic-studies courses in a way that violates the state’s new law.

Brewing Conflict

The letter followed a special board meeting held the same day to address the controversy. At the meeting, the board adopted a new resolution saying it will ensure that the district’s ethnic-studies courses are taught “in accordance with all applicable laws.”

Mr. Pedicone didn’t respond to Education Week‘s requests from for an interview.

Ethnic-Studies Courses Provide Different World View

In this video from September 2010, Tucson High School students contest charges that ethnic-studies courses teach minority students that they are victims.

In October, Tucson teachers and administrators filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the state ban on ethnic studies. The teachers “believe that the act is the product of racial bias aimed specifically at Hispanics, is unlawful, [and] results in impermissible deprivations of rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution,” the lawsuit says. It contends that the law violates the First and 14th Amendments of the Constitution, including the equal protection and due process clauses.

The lawsuit also argues that Mr. Horne has no evidence to show that the Tucson district has violated the state’s ethnic-studies law in the way that it has designed and teaches the courses.

Mr. Horne, a Republican, was a leading proponent of the ethnic-studies law approved by the legislature last year, sparking protests in some Tucson high schools. Mr. Huppenthal, a fellow Republican, also criticized Tucson Unified’s ethnic-studies courses in his campaign last year to become schools chief.

In his Jan. 3 letter to Tucson school officials, Mr. Horne wrote that he has received complaints only about the district’s Mexican-American studies program, so his findings pertain only to that program. He makes no mention, for example, of the district’s ethnic-studies courses about African-Americans or Native Americans.

Interpreting the Law

Mr. Horne contends the program violates the new state law’s provision that no course can be designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group. He acknowledges some students other than Mexican-Americans take the courses but says the law doesn’t use the word “exclusively” but rather “primarily,” and thus applies to courses in Tucson. He also cites purposes of the courses spelled out on the district’s website, such as that they aim to boost “academic proficiency for Latino students” in making the argument that they are intended primarily for a particular ethnic group.

Mr. Pedicone’s letter anticipated the possibility that the growing conflict between the state and the district could spur anew some student protests in support of the continued offering of ethnic studies. He instructed students that they must stay in school and that if they defy that requirement, they will experience “consequences in accordance with school procedure.” The superintendent also directed employees “not to leave campus with students in the event of a student protest.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2011 edition of Education Week as Tucson District Holds Firm Despite State Ultimatum on Ethnic-Studies Classes


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