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Rejected in Tucson. Published. Jan. 21, 2012,
The Tucson Unified School District has dismantled its Mexican-American studies program, packed away its offending books, shuttled its students into other classes. It was blackmailed into doing so: keeping the program would have meant losing more than $14 million in state funding. It was a blunt-force victory for the Arizona school superintendent, John Huppenthal, who has spent years crusading against ethnic-studies programs he claims are “brainwashing” children into thinking that Latinos have been victims of white oppression.
As a state legislator, he co-wrote a law cracking down on ethnic studies, and as superintendent he decided that Tucson’s district was violating it. School officials in Tucson and elsewhere strenuously disagree, saying he misunderstood and mischaracterized a program that brought much-needed attention to a neglected part of America’s history and culture. They say it engaged students, pushed them to excel, and led to better grades and attendance.
But their interpretation collided with that of Mr. Huppenthal, whose law prohibits programs that “promote the overthrow of the United States government,” “promote resentment toward a race or class of people” and “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” Unless two students win a federal lawsuit arguing that the loss of the program violates their First Amendment rights, Tucson school officials and students are going to have to enrich their curriculum another way.
To say that Arizona’s Anglo and Hispanic populations have had multiple points of collision and misunderstanding is putting it mildly. Arizona (the state that also showed some of the most bitter resistance to a federal Martin Luther King holiday) enacted the first in a recent spate of extremist immigration laws and spawned the Minuteman border-vigilante movement.
If Mr. Huppenthal wanted to diminish resentment and treat Hispanic students as individuals, he picked a lousy way to do it. His action has Hispanic critics saying they feel their culture is under attack — and has students in a well-established, well-liked program feeling dejected.
For Tucson school officials, this should not mean the end of teaching texts like “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed” and “Rethinking Columbus.” It is a challenge to draft a new curriculum whose honesty and excellence all of Tucson’s teachers and students can be proud of.