Social Studies

Did Arizona Ethnic-Studies Law Come With Discriminatory Intent?

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — July 10, 2017 2 min read
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A seven-year-old Arizona law that resulted in the scaling-back of a Mexican-American studies program in Tucson is back in court this summer.

The law banned classes that “promote the overthrow of the United States government” or “resentment toward a race or class of people,” “advocate for ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of students as individuals,” or are “designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.” A thriving Mexican American studies program in Tucson was eventually ended as a result of the law, and educators and students in Tucson claimed that that law was unconstitutional and that officials who pushed for the law had discriminatory intent.

A federal district court in Arizona upheld most of the law in 2013 (it ruled that the line that banned courses designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group violated the First Amendment) and dismissed the civil rights claim. But in 2015, a federal appeals court in San Francisco ordered the case back to the Arizona district court. The appeals court agreed that the law was not itself discriminatory and that most of it was constitutional, but said that there were genuine “issues of fact” about whether the state lawmakers were motivated by discriminatory intent that should be heard in trial. (More about that opinion here, and more on the history of the case here. You can read the whole appeals court opinion here.)

This summer’s trial is expected to continue through mid-July. The Arizona Daily Star has reported on some of the testimony so far, including excerpts from the questioning of John Huppenthal, the state’s former top schools official and a supporter of the law. The Daily Star reported that Huppenthal said he did not apologize for comparing teachers in Tucson’s Mexican American studies program to skinheads, and that he believed the program was toxic.

Ethnic studies courses in other states and cities are gaining more institutional support: California is set to be the first state to create an ethnic-studies curriculum, and the Seattle board of education passed a resolution encouraging schools to teach ethnic studies this month.

A different set of ethnic studies courses in Tucson, introduced as part of a federal racial desegregation order, was deemed not in violation of the state’s law in 2015 by the state’s education superintendent.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.