Back in May, I wrote about how the state of Arizona codified in law a bill, HB 2281, banning ethnic studies curriculums throughout the state. On Thursday, I had the opportunity to listen to the attorney and two plaintiffs (teachers Lorenzo Lopez and Rene Martinez) who are challenging this law in court at a presentation at Pomona College in California. Tucson Unified School District may be one of the only K-12 districts in the country that has an ethnic studies program for students so that they can learn about events and people who have often been left out of the history books.
The model for the Mexican-American studies program in the Tucson schools is based on the notion of “critically compassionate intellectualism.” Students are exposed to history, concepts, and ideas in class, and in the process discover their intellectual strengths. Mexican-American history is taught within the context of the larger American and world histories, and other courses involving the arts are taught (mariachi music for instance).
The teachers indicated that 10% of the students in the Mexican American studies courses are not Latino. Furthermore, data collected by the district and state shows that for the past 6 years, students in the Mexican American studies program outperform their peers on the Arizona high school exit exam. One of the plaintiff teachers pointed out that although the Mexican American studies program does not offer math, their students increased their scores on math standardized tests. And he felt that this score increase is a testament to the courses and teachers that inspire these students to strive for excellence beyond the curricula that they teach.
Arizona’s HB 2281 is scheduled to go into effect on December 31, and if the district does not comply, sanctions and fines will be imposed. Right now the attorney representing the teachers in the case, Richard Martinez, is trying to get an injunction and plans to challenge the implementing of the law as violating the first amendment, by challenging what is the compelling state interest in banning the Mexican-American studies program, and by examining the educational equity issue.
The teachers readily admit that their program was singled out by the state superintendent of education and controversial Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce, who was a leading sponsor of SB 1070. And they provided footage of Pearce and his colleagues suggesting that the ethnic studies instructors were teaching the students that they were oppressed. Opponents of the program have insisted that the teachers were informing students how to be anti-American or implying that they were teaching hate speech.
For more information, check out this video below. Precious Knowlege, the documentary, that was made about the ethnic studies struggle in Tucson Unified School District will soon air on PBS. And you can check out the Save Ethnic Studies website.
My sense is that this particular ethnic studies program was and is not presenting anti-American views, but rather is presenting the side of history that is often left out or censored. When people are denied of their history, I think that there is more opportunity for radicalizing and creating a class of people who are angry than allowing alternative points of view to be explored in a classroom facilitated by trained instructors.