Failing the Democracy Test

Our city’s largest school system has been trapped in a prolonged controversy over a locally designed curriculum intended to incorporate the experiences of “minorities” into the teaching of American history. Most of the newspaper reporting on this matter has failed to give examples of ideas the teaching materials convey, but debate ceased last week when the district’s governing board voted to suspend the courses rather than give up $15 million of their state funding.

The fight started in 2001 when a federal judge ordered Tucson Unified School District to offer it students “culturally relevant” courses to satisfy desegregation rules stipulated decades ago: public schools are to teach every single student “equally.” The faculty responded with a class called Mexican American Studies which taught American history and government inclusive of racism in our society. In 2006, the state’s attorney general started to campaign against MAS (and also similar university-level studies), which lead to the introduction of H.B.2281 and the Arizona legislature then passing a law banning public school courses that “promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, foster racial resentment or are designed for students of a particular ethnicity.” The new Ethnic Studies Law (A.R.S. 15-112) specifically prohibits courses that encourage ethnic solidarity as opposed to “teaching to individuals.”

WelcomeWhen the law took effect in 2011, TUSD had 53,000 students, 60% Hispanic and 24% white/Anglo, and 15% other ethnicities. The disputed courses remained in place. Over 90% of the students in the elective MAS classes were Hispanic and 5% were white/Anglo. The lead teachers had been accused of recruiting students to their own activist causes.

Supporters of the classes praised the program for boosting student achievement. Two supporters filed a lawsuit asserting that the new law was unconstitutional A state-commissioned, independent audit showed that the classes had indeed improved Latino student achievement. The auditors largely supported MAS though indicated the curriculum and teaching techniques needed some tidying up. For example, the term “RAZ Studies” should not be used on the materials.

The state superintendent of schools disregarded their conclusions and prepared to withhold 10% of the district’s funding for its refusal to comply.

As an attempt to calm critics, the governing board did drop the MAS courses, and also removed seven controversial books from the overall curriculum. A group outraged by this was formed, calling itself Librotraficante (“book smuggler”). The board un-banned them in 2013 and TUSD started to develop a new curriculum for elementary, middle and high school students that focused less on Mexican-American literature and perspectives, aiming to teach all students how to respect each other’s cultures. While specifics were still undecided, state authorities declared the classes wouldn’t meet “core educational standards.” (Never mind that the concept of a “core curriculum” is another hot potato.)

Meanwhile, Librotraficante won the 2012 Robert Downs Freedom of Information Award given by the faculty of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Downs Intellectual Freedom Award. It was presented at the American Library Association meeting in Seattle. ALA had condemned the TUSD book banning and librarians subsequently gathered to examine the Tucson problem. Libroficante soon expanded across the country and published a magazine and a freedom of speech event created in conjunction with Hispanic Heritage Month.

Also, the original MAS teachers offered to teach the courses outside of school. A version was made available through the Tucson branch of a private liberal arts college, a rarity in Arizona. Prescott College is opposed to any law that prohibits multicultural education. Chican@Literature is worth two college credits to high school students who complete the course.

Last week (January 10, 2015) an administrative law judge ruled TUSD’s MAS courses had violated the new Ethnic Studies Law by teaching history “in a biased, political, and emotionally charged manner.” Almost immediately, the TUSD governing board suspended the Mexican-American studies department. The single dissenter (daughter of U.S. Congressman Raul Grijalva) stated that the law is a manifestation of the anti-immigrant political climate in the state house.

In my next few posts, I would like to share my thoughts (and experience) concerning the fears HB 2281 expressed: the overthrow of government, racial resentment, and catering to a particular ethnicity.

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