Monday, January 23, 2012

Arizona’s Ban on Ethnic Studies: The Latest Battleground over Ideology, Power, and Voice

The recent dismantling of the Mexican American Studies Program in Tucson, Arizona has less to do with facts over a highly successful thirteen year old curriculum taught in the Tucson Unified School District and more to do with ideological dominance and power over whose voices will be heard in a democracy.

In response to the long historical failure of the public schools to raise academic achievement and reduce the dropout rates of students of color, the Tucson Unified School District created a Mexican American studies program that would be more culturally responsive and socially relevant to the needs of the large population of Latino students in the district. By all accounts, the program has been highly successful. Readers can go to the Save Ethnic Studies website for details about audits on the program’s effectiveness. In 2010, in a highly charged political environment, the Arizona State Legislature passed HB 2281 banning any program that “prohibits a school district or charter school from including in its program of instruction any courses or classes that: promote the overthrow of the United States government, promote resentment toward a race or class of people, are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group, advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” (Arizona Revised Statute § 15-112, 2010)

Despite the state’s own commissioned study that showed the Mexican American Studies Program fully complied with the law and had produced significant results in student achievement, Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal , nevertheless, continued his pressure to suspend the program. In January of this year, faced with a multimillion dollar reduction in state aid as a penalty, the Tucson School Board voted 4-1 to dismantle the program. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is now considering a suit that was brought by students and teachers. The court found, however, that the teachers do not have standing but that the suit by students could continue. Teachers have set up a website, Save Ethnic Studies, where readers can follow the progress of the case, donate to the cause, and sign a petition.

The struggle in Arizona goes to the heart of democracy. As U.S. Rep. Raul M. Grijalva says, “This legislation against diversity might be focused on Tucson, but it has significant ramifications across the country.” (Biggers, 2011) It raises questions about who will have a voice and how that voice will be exercised. It asks whose history should be taught and how it should be portrayed. Ultimately, it raises questions about truth. Do we betray our students by presenting only a sanitized account of our history; do we pretend that this nation has never failed to live up to its ideals; do we continue to suppress voices that have been historically silenced, or more often, co-opted and appropriated by the dominant discourse. Or do we allow and encourage alternative narratives in a more inclusive democratic conversation. Public education is at the heart of these questions.

As teachers were ordered to box the censored books for storage in the Textbook Depository, one cannot help but wonder what messages were being sent by a political authority that was supposedly concerned about not promoting ethnic resentment. For young people whose encounter with these books led to self discovery, positive images of Latino identity, and transformative knowledge and action, the State’s actions must surely have been traumatizing and a lesson in the very oppression and hegemony that often defined the social conditions of their communities.


Biggers, J. (2011). Arizona's Ethnic Studies Ban Has National Ramifications, Warns U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, HuffPost, Posted: 5/11/11 11:00 PM ET. Retrieved from on January 21, 2012.

Prohibited Courses and Classes; Enforcement. AZ Rev. Stat. §15-112 (2010) Retrieved from

For more insights into this issue, I invite readers to visit the upcoming issue of our electronic journal, the Journal of Educational Controversy (Volume 6 Number 1) and read “The Hypocrisy of Racism: Arizona's Movement towards State-Sanctioned Apartheid” by Augustine F. Romero, Director of Student Equity and Co-Founder of the Social Justice Project, Tucson Unified School District, Arizona.

No comments: