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Arizona, Tucson at Odds Over Ethnic Studies

By Mary Ann Zehr — August 10, 2010 3 min read
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Arizona education department officials and administrators for the Tucson Unified School District are set to do battle over whether the school district should continue to offer its ethnic studies, particularly Mexican-American studies, in light of a new state law tightly restricting such classes.

Tom Horne, Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction, turned up the heat on the controversy by sending a letter Aug. 3 to the superintendent of Tucson Unified threatening to withhold 10 percent of basic state aid to the district when the new law goes into effect Dec. 31. That law bars public schools from providing classes that are designed for a particular ethnic group, that advocate ethnic solidarity, or that promote resentment toward a race or group of people. (“Studies Take Aim at Policies on English-Language Learners in Arizona,” May 19, 2010.)

Mr. Horne contends that Tucson Unified’s ethnic studies courses match the kind barred by the law, House Bill 2281. He declared his department’s intention to withhold funds in the letter to John Carroll, the superintendent of Tucson Unified. Mr. Horne also formally requested that the superintendent videotape all of the ethnic studies classes in the district “in their entirety” for the fall semester.

But Tucson Unified administrators say the 60,000-student district’s ethnic studies courses are open to all students and don’t fit the description of those prohibited in the measure signed into law by Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, in May.

“We’re going to continue to teach the classes because we know we are in full compliance with the law,” said Sean Arce, the director of Mexican-American studies for Tucson Unified. In fact, he said, the courses are expected to enroll nearly 2,000 students during the 2010-11 school year, up from about 1,000 last school year.

He also said Tucson administrators don’t intend to comply with Mr. Horne’s request to videotape the courses. Mr. Arce said “the classroom is the domain of the teacher and student.”

Showdown Looming

If Mr. Horne carries through on his threat to withhold state funds, Tucson Unified can appeal to a state administrative judge.

The state schools chief said in his letter that if the district refuses to videotape the ethnic studies classes, he will offer that stance as evidence that the district “has deliberately hidden facts” that would show it to be in violation of the new law.

Mr. Horne’s term as Arizona’s superintendent expires at the end of this year, and he’s seeking the Republican nomination for state attorney general. Margaret G. Dugan, the deputy superintendent,is running as a Republican for the post Mr. Horne will vacate.

Ms. Dugan said in an interview Aug. 4 that she will press for the state aid to be withheld from Tucson Unified if she is elected schools chief. She said that at the least 10 percent of the $5,000 per pupil in state funding to the district would be withheld. She characterized the ethnic studies courses in Tucson as “anti-American.”

“The one thing that bothers me the most is that they give credits to students for U.S. history for these courses,” Ms. Dugan said. “Most history teachers tell me it is difficult to teach all of the curriculum and standards of U.S. history in one year.

“When do [students in the courses] really learn about U.S. history and our founding fathers and what else goes on with this country,” she said, “when they are taught they are oppressed and victims and this country really belongs to Mexico?”

Mr. Arce confirmed that students who take U.S. history taught from a Mexican-American perspective, one of the district’s ethnic studies courses, receive U.S. history credit for the course. He argues that students don’t miss out on learning about major historical events.

“If you look at World War II, you look at Mexican-American participation in World War II,” he said. “That’s important because students need to see themselves in the course.”

He said district data show students enrolled in the courses do better on state tests than do their counterparts not in the courses.

James A. Banks, the director of the Center for Multicultural Education at the University of Washington in Seattle, said Tucson Unified’s offering of ethnic studies likely has become especially controversial because of the polarization in Arizona over immigration policy. (“Arizona Immigration Law Creates Uncertain Role for School Police,” June 16, 2010.)

He said critics of multicultural education often don’t understand that the goal of ethnic studies is “to unite Americans, not to divide them, ... to help kids get more-positive views of all groups.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 11, 2010 edition of Education Week as Ethnic Studies Courses Once Again Draw Fire From Arizona Officials

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