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Tucson’s Ousted Mexican-American Studies Director Speaks: The Fight’s Not Over

Sean Arce may not have a job anymore, but he’s still going to defend the program he used to direct. Arce, the former director of Tucson Unified School District’s now-suspended Mexican American Studies program, was fired earlier this month in the latest crackdown on the program in what has become a years-long saga over the … Continued

Sean Arce may not have a job anymore, but he’s still going to defend the program he used to direct. Arce, the former director of Tucson Unified School District’s now-suspended Mexican American Studies program, was fired earlier this month in the latest crackdown on the program in what has become a years-long saga over the fate of the popular program.

Two years ago, and mere weeks after signing Arizona’s SB 1070 into law, Gov. Jan Brewer signed HB 2281, which barred Arizona public schools from teaching courses which advocated “the overthrow” of the United States government; encouraged “ethnic solidarity” or “promote resentment” toward any other ethnic group. The law was directly specifically at Tucson’s Mexican-American studies program, state schools chief Tom Horne admitted. School districts found violating the law could have lost 10 percent of their state funding as punishment. At the outset the Tucson Unified School District tried to defend the program by insisting it was fully compliant with the law. That strategy didn’t pan out; in January the program was suspended after the state ruled that MAS did indeed violate HB 2281.

Meanwhile, educators have gone straight to the source, trying to challenge the basic constitutionality of HB 2281. Their case is working its way through the courts, but on the ground, the fight continues. It turns out that Tucson’s educators and Latino youth are an irrepressible bunch; they’ve shut down school board meetings, organized weekend ethnic studies courses outside the district; and fought for the return of their program. Colorlines caught up with Arce to discuss the state of education in Arizona, and to separate myth from reality when it comes to ethnic studies.

You were fired earlier this month. Did this move surprise you?

It did not surprise me at all, given the politics of the state of Arizona. Unfortunately our local officials have cowered to these very discriminatory policies, so when we spoke out against the law, it left all of us vulnerable. Time and time again at our board meetings, when the district wanted to cower to state law, we spoke out as plaintiffs in the federal court case we’re engaged in. We spoke out against Superintendent John Pedicone. As a result, he clearly wanted to send a message of how dare you speak out against what we’re doing here in the district. Now they’re going after other teachers as well.

In January there was a White House summit for Latino education. The Department of Education’s Civil Rights division was there, the Department of Justice was there. I shared with them in a public forum that our district was retaliating against us and engaging in disparate discriminatory treatment, and violating the equal protection rights of our students by allowing other ethnic studies classes to continue.

As responsive educators we strongly believe that Native American Studies, African American studies, Pan Asian studies are essential. They’re great for our students. Yet there’s a clear disparate treatment, a clear violation of the equal protection of our students when you allow other classe to continue, yet you eliminate our classes.

And I reported all this back to Supt. John Pedicone. Since then I knew my job was going to be in jeopardy. But in the whole history of justice, and what is sound educational policy, that was more important than my job.

Do you think that pointing our that disparity might just invite those who don’t want children of color learning their history to go after those programs as well?

I think a great deal has to do with demographics. While their numbers are significant, they’re not seen as a demographic threat the same way as Mexican American and Latino students are in the state of Arizona. Tuscon Unified School District is 63 percent Latino within 51,000-student school district. The white student population is 25.4 percent, and the African-American population is 5.8 percent. The Native-American population is 3.5 percent and Asians are 2.4 percent.

With the demographic shift that’s taking place, just like in many school districts throughout the urban southwest and all throughout the country, you have a decreasing white Anglo population and a simultaneously increasing Latino population. So these policies, particularly within the state of Arizona are a nativist reaction to the demographic shifts taking place. Compounding that is the effect of an educational program that meets the educational and social needs of our student population. When they see students asserting their agency, asserting their voice, matriculating into college, for them that is a threat.

In Tucson, we have Michael Hicks, I don’t know if you saw him on the Daily Show. He served as an expert witness for the state in claiming all those crazy things about our clases, that they promote violence and promote hatred. That it was promoting resentment against non-Latino folks. It’s just ridiculous. These classes are geared toward Latino students because we’re under a federal desegregation order that calls for the classes as a way to remedy that disparity in our district. Yet these classes are good for all students. The white students that have taken our classes say they serve as a window of opportunity. They’ve been grateful for taking them.

Can you speak to these oft-quoted statistics that 48 percent of Latino students in TUSD drop out of high school, but something like 94 percent of students who go through the program graduate. What’s behind those numbers?

There was a study done at UCLA by Daniel Solorzano and Tara Yosso that talks about the Chicano educational pipeline of Mexican American youth. The dropout rate across the country is about 54 percent for Mexican American and Chicano youth and in most urban school districts you see a mirror trend. TUSD is no different. But students who take our classes, data has emerged not from our department but from the department of accountability and research, that students who take our classes graduate at 97.5 percent. There was a district audit ordered by [Arizona State Superintendent] John Huppenthal and paid for by taxpayers. Through Cambium, an independent group, they conducted a separate analysis and found the same thing. Even more insightful, [ethnic studies courses] at the very least close the achievement gap. And at some our our sites, they surpass the achievement gap.

Urban school districts across the nation are seeking aggressively ways to figure out: How do we close the achievement gap? What’s significant with this number is they demonstrated that they were capable of closing that gap.

That was also documented, researched, and published through the state commission audit. And yet our district did not assert that in the administrative hearings. Our state superintendent and state officials actually denounced their own independent audit which was paid through taxpayer dollars in the amount of [$110,000], so you have these rigorous studies, independent studies, and yet folks like our Attorney General Tom Horne say, well, the data show that your students graduate at higher rates, that they are closing the achievement gap, but it’s not about that. According to him TUSD’s Mexican-American studies are an anti-American program that need to be eliminated. So it’s horrible, our own state officials are denouncing academic achievement, denouncing higher graduation rates and instead spreading this discourse to the public that we are anti-american, anti-white. There is nothing further from the truth.

Can you go into educator mode for a second? Because people like Tom Horne have called the Mexican-American studies curriculm racist. And other people who are trying to defend have said, no, it’s that HB 2281 is a racist law. How do define racism here? It doesn’t seem like both things could be “racist.” How does your definition of racist here differ from the way that Tom Horne interprets the word?

Racism is about power. About oppressing somebody through institutions, institutions of control. What we’re dealing with is institutional racism, the legacy of institutional racism. So Tom Horne sees Mexican American knowledge, history, our literature, as threats to Eurocentric knowledge. And because it counters that very source of knowledge and what we’re doing is trying to integrate more holistic and more comprehensive knowledge forms into our school system for the benefit for all of our students, he simply disregards it and again implements his fear-mongering and says that we’re racist. In no way would we replicate a paradigm that exists in our school systems in which particular groups of students are marginalized, because there are indeed racist practices and policies within our school system.

Racism is about control and marginalization and dehumanization of a group of people. In no means are we being that. Our pedagogy, our curriculum, is about rehumanization, about race as a social construct. And it’s about not replicating this paradigm. The real question we have to ask is, what type of power do certain groups of people wield against certain groups of people?

Huppenthal has compared us to Nazis, to Hitler Youth, which is also very offensive, and there’s a real distortion, a real twisting of historical circumstances. It’s horrific and what it is is the further dehumanization and demonization of Latinos in the state of Arizona.

Where do things go from here?

Another promising result of this anti-Mexican, this anti-Latino legislation has been that it’s really organized our community. Our community is more assertive, politically active, organizing, getting out in the community. We are participating in electoral politics, getting people in office who are responsive to the needs of our communities. So in that sense we’re very optimistic. Our communities have been struggling with this for the past six years. People at the state level, people at the district level thought this issue was going to go away once our program was deemed as violating the law. But what has in fact happened is it’s had an opposite effect. Our youth are highly engaged, are highly committed to fight for social justice, to fight for equality. And that’s great. Typically youth of color are seen as apathetic in this country. They’re seen as not caring about education, not caring about political processes. But youth in our community have demonstrated that these are very important issues for them.

It’s tragic, yet at the same time, we’re very fortunate that we have such a close-knit community that youth and elders are able to organize together, to dialogue together. The youth are not future leaders, they are current leaders, they’re courageous. It’s just unfortunate we can’t say that about our public officials, or our school board, or local school administrators.

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