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Arizona outlaws Ethnic Studies programs

Activists, community prepare to fight back

Published Feb 6, 2011 9:10 PM

Arizona Superintendent of Schools Tom Horne announced Jan. 3 that the Tucson Unified School District was in violation of state law HB 2281. This recently passed law bans all Arizona public schools from offering ethnic studies courses.

Horne released his findings in a 10-page document as his last act as superintendent. Hours later, he was sworn in as the state’s attorney general.

John Huppenthal, Horne’s successor as superintendent, immediately threw his support behind Horne’s findings. He gave the district 60 days to comply by eliminating the ethnic studies program or face a 10 percent districtwide budget cut. Such a cut would devastate the already suffering public school district.

This attack on the right of oppressed people to learn their own history is a continuation of the racist, right-wing offensive unleashed in Arizona, which is accelerating as the capitalist economic crisis deepens. Banning ethnic studies and passing the infamous anti-immigrant law SB 1070 are attempts to whip up a racist frenzy against Indigenous and Latino/a peoples and blame them for the misery and suffering imposed by the capitalist system itself.

Students, teachers, community respond

The TUSD Board responded to Horne’s findings by issuing a public statement of support for the ethnic studies program. The board said that the program would continue, but that they would guarantee that the program complies with the new law’s dictates. The board insists that the program can be saved through dialogue with Superintendent Huppenthal.

As a state senator, Huppenthal sponsored or supported every racist, anti-immigrant, anti-public-education bill raised in the legislature. He even ran his campaign for superintendent on a promise to “Stop La Raza.” Given its response, the TUSD Board is caving in to the right-wing pressure while trying to save face with the community. It is clear that it cannot be relied upon to defend the ethnic studies program.

High school students across the city have created an organization that encompasses multiple high schools and will coordinate student resistance districtwide. Teachers and community activists have organized Community Action for Education, which will hold its first community meeting on Feb. 5.

Last October, 11 teachers in the TUSD Ethnic Studies Department filed suit in federal court against Horne, Gov. Jan Brewer and the State Board of Education in an attempt to have HB 2281 declared unconstitutional. This litigation may take years, and unless an immediate injunction is granted, the 10 percent budget sanction will bankrupt the school district by the time the case is settled.

Since 2007, when Horne first publicly announced in an open letter his intention to destroy the ethnic studies program, it has been the struggle of students, teachers and community activists in the streets of Tucson that has kept the program alive. This battle is not over. Students, teachers and activists are making it clear they will again mobilize to defend their right to quality education.

A brief history

A series of protests and high school walkouts in 1968, known as the Chicano Blowouts, opened the struggle for equality in education that brought the ethnic studies program into existence. This struggle by oppressed Latino/a youth forced many educational institutions to include Mexican-American studies in their curriculum. The University of Arizona in Tucson created a Mexican-American studies program in 1969.

Despite the university’s Mexican-American studies program, conditions for Latino/a youth in Tucson’s elementary and high schools bordered on segregation. A five-year court battle between the TUSD and the federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare ended with a June 1978 desegregation order demanding that TUSD eliminate all vestiges of discrimination. This 1978 order was not fully lifted until December 2009.

During the mid-1990s community activists pressured TUSD to create a program similar to the university’s Mexican-American studies program. In 1998 TUSD instituted the Mexican-American studies program, and by 2004 there was a full-fledged ethnic studies program encompassing African-American, Pan-Asian, Native-American and Raza studies.

Following the uprising of immigrant workers in 2006, which was a response to the racist anti-immigrant Sensenbrenner Bill, Horne began his attacks on Tucson’s ethnic studies program. In the spring of 2006, United Farm Workers leader Dolores Huerta addressed students at Tucson High School and remarked during her talk that “Republicans hate Latinos.” (Tucson Citizen, April 13, 2006)

Republican Horne responded by dispatching his Deputy Superintendent Margaret Dugan to lecture the same high school students about how to “think for themselves.” During Dugan’s speech some 200 students walked out of the auditorium.

In June 2007 Horne published an open letter stating that the ethnic studies program should be terminated. In 2008 he worked with legislators to introduce SB 1108, the first anti-ethnic studies bill. Led by angry students, a mobilization was launched that stopped the bill’s passage. In 2009 Horne and his cohorts tried again with SB 1069, which was again pushed back. In 2010, SB 2281 was introduced and was signed by the governor shortly after SB 1070 was signed.