Social Studies

Judge Blocks Arizona From Banning Ethnic Studies Classes

By Brenda Iasevoli — December 28, 2017 2 min read
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A federal judge has blocked an Arizona state law that led to the shuttering of a popular Mexican-American history course in the Tucson Unified School District.

Judge Wallace Tashima on Wednesday declared the law unconstitutional, putting an end to state education officials’ efforts to restrict ethnic studies programs, or to require district officials to provide information about what is being taught in the classes.

Tashima said in the injunction that the ban was “not for a legitimate educational purpose, but for an invidious discriminatory racial purpose, and a politically partisan purpose.”

In 2013, Tashima had largely upheld the controversial law, which aimed to bar courses that promote resentment against a race or class of people or advocate ethnic solidarity. Tashima at that time said the law was not passed with discriminatory intent, but did admit to seeing some “red flags.”

“Although some aspects of the record may be viewed to spark suspicion that the Latino population has been improperly targeted, on the whole, the evidence indicates that defendants targeted the MAS [Mexican American Studies] program, not Latino students, teachers, or community members who supported or participated in the program,” the judge said in 2013.

But in 2015, a federal appeals court in San Francisco ordered the case back to the Arizona district court to determine if the ban was enacted with racist intent. Finally, this past August, Tashima ruled the ban did have discriminatory intent.

The Start of a Movement

The rise in ethnic studies course offerings in K-12 schools came about, in part, as a response to the ban on the Mexican-American course in Tucson public schools. The program, which teaches the contributions of Mexican Americans, was first launched in 1998 and later expanded under the district’s desegregation plan. More than 60 percent of Tucson’s enrollment is of Mexican or other Hispanic descent.

Since the ban was first enacted, more and more educators across the country have advocated for offering courses that present the history of communities of color as one way to engage diverse student bodies. The school board in Bridgeport, Conn., unanimously approved a requirement in October to make ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement, making the district one of just a few in the country that have raised ethnic studies courses above the status of an elective.

Studies show that the courses provide students with several benefits. A 2016 study out of Stanford University revealed that taking a course examining “the roles of race, nationality, and culture on identity and experience” improved grades, attendance, and graduation rates. A study by the University of Arizona of Tucson’s controversial Mexican-American studies program showed similar positive academic benefits for students.

All eyes are now on Tucson’s school board members to see how they react to the ruling and what changes, if any, they’ll make as a result.

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