Tucson’s Unified School District is 56 percent Latino, but you may not know it by the changes in the curriculum. According to bills recently passed in the Arizona state legislature, the Mexican-American studies program may no longer be offered, and you certainly won’t be hearing any Spanish-inflected vowels in English-language classes.
Arizona has banned the school district from offering any courses that are designed for students primarily of a certain race, as well as courses that “promote the overthrow of the US government … or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals” – at the risk of losing up to ten percent of their funding. The state has also told schools state-wide that teachers with “heavy” or “ungrammatical” accents are no longer allowed to teach English classes.
Governor Jan Brewer signed these bills into law less than a month after penning her name to some of the most restrictive immigration legislation the nation has seen, and only hours after a team of UN human rights experts condemned the measure targeting ethnic studies classes.
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“If you look at some of this other legislation that has passed it is a rising anti-immigration sentiment and a disconcerting pushback against [a] diverse Arizona,” said John Wright, president of the Arizona Education Association. The AEA was disappointed that Gov. Brewer signed the legislation, said Wright.
He called the authority given to the state superintendent by the HB 2281 measure, which targets the ethnic studies classes offered in the Tucson Unified School District, to withhold funding from school programs unprecedented, over-reaching and “fairly appalling.” Usually, he said, such funding decisions are not vested in one person.
He also noted the disparity between the Republican ideology of small government and the actions of the Republican legislature in Arizona, which has shown a trend towards “the legislature inserting itself into this type of policy,” which should “happen at the school level and needs to involve the local governing board.”
A Republican school directive is also behind the controversial ruling of the Arizona state legislature to remove teachers with accents from teaching English in public schools. The decision is codified by No Child Left Behind, a Bush-era bill which mandates that anyone who teaches English must be fluent for a state to receive funding, but allows the state to set standards and define “fluency.”
Since the ruling, state auditors dispatched by the education department have reported that some teachers pronounce words like violet as “biolet” and think as “tink,” both signs of Spanish-inflected accents.
State education officials say this is to allow students learning English to be taught by teachers who speak the language flawlessly, but some principals and educators say that such arbitrary fluency measures could hurt students by removing experienced teachers.
In the 1990s, Arizona hired hundreds of teachers whose first language was Spanish, many of who were recruited from Latin America, as part of a broad bilingual-education program. Then in 2000, voters passed a ballot measure stipulating that bilingual instruction be offered only in English. Bilingual instructors who had been teaching in Spanish switched to English.
For schools like Creighton Elementary in Phoenix, where half the teachers are native Spanish speakers, the new bill could lead to a lot of restructuring. Teachers whose English may not be deemed fluent enough will need to take additional classes, and according to the director of the Arizona education-department office, it will be up to school districts to decide whether to fire teachers or reassign them to mainstream classes.
The ethnic studies curriculum in the Tucson Unified School District was also under a federally mandated constraint, though from a slightly different angle – the district expanded its ethnic-studies offerings as part of a measure to reduce racial disparities and end a court-ordered desegregation decree.
The decree, which ordered the school district to prove to the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice that it was not discriminating against minorities, was lifted after more than 30 years in December 2009. TUSD was the last school district in Arizona to close it desegregation case. Nationally, only 300 cases are still open, out of a high of 1,500 cases.
Some educators say this may mean the ethnic studies curriculum does not apply to Arizona’s new law, as it was started as part of an inclusive federal decree.
Maythee Rojas, president of the National Association for Ethnic Studies, said that contrary to the rhetoric around ethnic studies calling it divisive and exclusionary, “Ethnic studies emphasizes inclusion, looking at issues of ethnicity in terms of building knowledge about communities and seeking comparative perspectives to socio-political issues; it’s not in any way driven by hate or separatism.”
Amy Kobeta, president of the Phoenix Union High School Governing Board, said that ethnic studies could also play a positive role in the personal development of students. “When you see that you are part of a whole time-line, a whole community, that you have a role to play in this . . . I think that gives kids an opportunity to connect with what they are learning about,” she said.
San Francisco State University has embraced this philosophy, offering college credit for a ninth-grade ethnic studies course to encourage students who may not otherwise be considering going to university, and offering help to train district teachers and develop curricula.
“I don’t ever learn about the accomplishments and contributions of the people who look like me and the members of my family,” said California freshman Monet Cathrina-Rescat Wilson during public comment at her school board meeting. “How can I know who I can be if I don’t know who I am? Ethnic studies provides me with the foundation to learn who I am.”
Despite the positive student responses to programs like the one run by San Francisco State, Arizona state schools chief Tom Horne, a Republican running for attorney general and strong proponent of the HB 2281 bill, said the ethnic studies program in the Tucson school district taught Latino students that they were oppressed by whites and promoted “ethnic chauvinism.”
According to Senator Linda Lopez (D-Tucson), the target of the ethnic studies legislation is not the African-American or Native-American programs offered at TUSD but the Mexican-American program. Lopez told the Arizona Daily Star that she believed the aim was to stop the program entirely.
Tupac Enrique Acosta, an advocate for the rights of indigenous people and founding member of the community-based organization Tonatierra in Phoenix, said the laws recently passed in Arizona attempt “to allow the conception of history, education and social government strictly within the parameters of the European, American population.” Acosta also said that the threat that recent legislation is reacting to “is coming not from us but from the truth that there really is no white identity. Our fathers fought that battle and defeated it in Nazi Germany, and if we fight it here we will be victorious again.”
For Jesus Manual Casas, a multi-cultural psychologist who is now a professor emeritus at the University of California Santa Barbara, the effects of the harsh immigration legislation and bill targeting ethnic studies could “result in grave psychological harm to families and in particular children,” regardless of how directly it affects them.
“Kids aren’t stupid, they know when they’re second-class citizens,” said Casas. If you hear negative things about your ethnic group “all the time, and you don’t get things offset by getting something positive, you can’t help but grow up with negative self-esteem which then builds upon how you act.”
Students in Arizona may no longer have the option to learn that Arizona was once part of Mexico, or that Chicano activists called for the reclamation of the land in the 1960s. However, says Casas, they will not easily escape the demonizing rhetoric of ‘illegals’ that is on their TV, in their newspaper and in their legislature.