Arizona Law Puts Tight Rein on Ethnic Studies Classes

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 14, 2010 5 min read
A state law sharply curtailing the scope of ethnic-studies classes has ramped up conflict amid blowback from a new immigration statute.
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Gov. Jan Brewer has drawn both praise and criticism for her decision to sign a pair of hotly debated education bills, one that sharply reduces the scope of ethnic studies at public schools in Arizona and the other setting the stage for a system that will link teachers’ and principals’ evaluations with student-achievement data.

“This legislative session was by far the most important education reform session the state has ever had,” said Matthew Ladner, the vice president of research for the Goldwater Institute, a think tank based in Phoenix.

By contrast, John Wright, the president of the Arizona Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, said: “There really was not much to support in the way of education legislation that came through this session.”

The session adjourned April 29. The governor, a Republican, had until the end of the day on May 11 to sign or veto bills approved by the GOP-controlled legislature.

The ethnic-studies bill—which drew nationwide attention at a time when Arizona already was under fire for a controversial immigration-related measure—bars public schools from offering courses that are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnicity.

The bill arose out of a concern that Tom Horne, the state superintendent of schools, has expressed since 2007 about ethnic-studies classes provided by the Tucson Unified School District. In a 2007 open memo to the residents of Tucson, Mr. Horne wrote that the classes taught a “destructive ethnic chauvinism.” Mr. Horne, a Republican who is running for state attorney general, was first elected as state schools chief in 2002.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law several education-related measures, including a move toward linking teacher and principal evaluations to student-achievement data.

In a phone interview after the bill was signed, Mr. Horne said that he had tried to get the school district to stop offering the classes, but that it had expanded the program. So he asked the legislature to pass a bill prohibiting such classes.

But earlier in the day the bill was signed, Abel Morado, the principal of the 3,000-student Tucson High School, said the measure wouldn’t apply to the ethnic studies taught in his school district because they don’t contain the elements in the bill.

He explained that about 150 students in his school take elective classes that teach English and social studies standards through a lens of Mexican-American, or “Raza”; African-American; or Native American culture. But he said he wouldn’t characterize the classes as “designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group,” as the law says, because any students are welcome to take them.

He said the classes teach self-identification and respect for a variety of cultures.

Gov. Jan Brewer
12 Democrats
18 Republicans
25 Democrats
35 Republicans
1 million

Mr. Horne, however, said he has collected testimony of teachers and former teachers that shows the ethnic studies taught in Tucson match at least two of four components spelled out in the law, specifically that the classes are designed primarily for a particular ethnic group and that they advocate ethnic solidarity. Mr. Horne said the case could be made that the studies also promote resentment toward a race or class of people, another component in the law.

But he said he doesn’t think that they promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, which is the last component on the list.

Mr. Horne said that if the district doesn’t stop offering the classes, the state will withhold 10 percent of its aid to the district. District officials would have the right to appeal that move.

Mr. Horne said it was unfortunate that the signing of the bill came as Arizona is already under intense criticism for a law that requires police to inquire about the immigration status of people suspected to be in the country illegally.

“When people ask, ‘Is this part of the anti-immigrant atmosphere?,’ I say, ‘It’s the opposite.’ We’re trying to get the schools to treat the students as individuals and not on the basis of whatever race they are born into,” Mr. Horne said.

But Susan González Baker, the director of the Center for Mexican-American Studies at the University of Texas at Arlington, called it a “misconception ... that these classes are for students of color. They are about people of color and their role in the shaping and building of America, and they are for anyone.”

At her university, black, white, and Asian students, as well as Latinos, enroll in Mexican-American studies, she said. “They want to know more about this population because it is going to be the labor force, the customer base, the patient load, the student population in America at least over the next 50 years even if we can close off the borders completely.”

Assessing Educators

Less controversial in the state, it seems, is the new law that requires the state board of education to create a model framework for evaluation of teachers and principals that uses “quantitative data on student academic progress” for 33 percent to 50 percent of evaluation outcomes. School districts and charter schools would have to come up with the framework by Dec. 15, 2011, and implement it by the 2012-13 school year. Mr. Wright, of the teachers’ union, said that his organization opposed that bill at first because it initially called for 50 percent of the factors for evaluation to be based on student data. He said the union negotiated with proponents of the bill so that, instead, a range of 33 percent to 50 percent of components for evaluation would be determined by student data.

While the union agreed to the final language in the bill, overall, Mr. Wright said, “We are not supportive of the proposition that the state of Arizona should decide how employees should be assessed.”

The governor also signed a bill that prohibits school districts from retaining teachers based solely on seniority, and one prohibiting the promotion of 3rd graders if their state reading-test results show they are reading far below grade level.

The governor also signed an $8.5 billion fiscal 2011 state budget that slightly cuts K-12 funding to $3.49 billion, down from $3.53 billion in the current fiscal year.

A version of this article appeared in the May 19, 2010 edition of Education Week as Ethnic-Studies Classes Subject to Sharp Curbs Under New Ariz. Law


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