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Whose Version of History Is Taught? Arizona Law Bans Ethnic Studies Classes

December 30, 2010 at 6:07 PM EST
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An Arizona law is going into effect Friday aimed at shutting down ethnic studies classes in Tucson's public schools, but is binding on all public schools in the state. Lucky Severson reports on the new law in a story that aired on the PBS program, Religion & Ethics Newsweekly.
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RAY SUAREZ: Arizona has been at the forefront of the immigration debate this year. One statute allowing police to detain people suspected of being illegal immigrants is tied up in federal court.

Another new state law takes effect tomorrow. It’s aimed at shutting down ethnic studies classes in Tucson’s public schools, but is binding on all public schools in the state.

A version of this story aired on the PBS program “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.”

The correspondent is Lucky Severson.

PROTESTER: Our education is under attack! What do we do?

PROTESTERS: Fight back!

LUCKY SEVERSON: These high school students feel dumped on. They are protesting a new Arizona law that would cut the Tucson School District’s budget by $36 million a year, if the district doesn’t stop the way it’s allegedly teaching its Mexican-American studies classes.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne wrote part of the law himself.

TOM HORNE, Arizona superintendent of Public Instruction: It says that you can’t have courses that are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnicity or that arouse resentment against other ethnicities. That’s — that’s the essence of it.

LUCKY SEVERSON: The law also says ethnic studies classes cannot advocate ethnic solidarity or teach the overthrow of the U.S. government.

Horne was just elected Arizona attorney general, after eight years as the state’s school chief. Each year, he says he became more determined to shut down Tucson’s ethic studies program.

TOM HORNE: It was necessary because, in the Tucson Unified School District, they were dividing kids up by race. They had raza studies for the Mexican kids — la raza, as you know, means “the race” in Spanish — African-American studies for the African-American kids, Indian studies for the Native American kids, Asian Studies for the Asian kids. To me, it sounds like the old South, dividing kids up by race that way.

LUCKY SEVERSON: His primary witness against Tucson’s Mexican-American studies program is John Ward, who taught the class back in 2003, until, he says, he was pushed aside and eventually quit. Ward is Hispanic himself.

JOHN WARD, former ethnic studies teacher: I think, clearly, their purpose was to create the next generation of ethnic radicals who could hit the pavement, that they simply wanted to spread this message in a fertile classroom.

TOM HORNE: They teach kids that they live in occupied Mexico, that the United States is run by a clique of white, racist, imperialist people that want to oppress Latinos.

LUCKY SEVERSON: Abel Morado is the principal of the Tucson Magnet High School.

ABEL MORADO, principal, Tucson Magnet High School: If he believes that — that we are putting kids in a position to mistrust their fellow student and the authority figures in their life, then there’s not much I can say about that, other than to say, well, you may be describing a program, but you’re not describing this one.

LUCKY SEVERSON: Julio Cammarota is an associate professor of Mexican-American studies at the University of Arizona, where the faculty senate unanimously approved a resolution calling the law “distasteful” and “disturbing.” He says Horne has never attended an ethnic studies class in eight years.

JULIO CAMMAROTA, associate professor of Mexican-American Studies, University of Arizona: If he came to the classroom, he would see that the classrooms are diverse. Students spend quite a bit of time learning how to respect and respect each other’s cultures and cultural differences. So there is not this idea that one culture is superior to another. And that’s what he’s sort of implying, that there is cultural superiority of one group over the other. That’s ridiculous.

LUCKY SEVERSON: This is a Mexican-American studies class at one of six high schools in the Tucson District. The class focuses on history and current affairs. The subject on this day was Native American Indian history.

The teacher is Maria Federico Brummer.

MARIA FEDERICO BRUMMER, teacher: I think it’s important for every one of our students to be strong citizens and knowing that they have a commitment to democracy. And part of that commitment is knowing exactly where our country is coming from, our history. Some of it might be negative. And it’s our responsibility not to repeat any part of that negative history again.

LUCKY SEVERSON: Superintendent Horne says the classes are dividing kids by race.

But not all the kids in this class were Hispanic, who make up over 60 percent of Tucson’s high school students.

This is 15-year-old Shelbi Plank.

SHELBI PLANK, student: If you’re in a normal American history class, you learn the white perspective, like, and if you’re in the ethnic studies class, you learn from the different races’ perspective. Like, from Asians, you learn about how they have started their own perspective on things.

JULIO CAMMAROTA: And they’re not the — by far, the best students at the school, but because of these — because of these courses, they tend to do better than their peers at their school. They end up doing better. They end up doing — scoring better on standardized tests. They end up graduating at a very high rate. They end up going on to college.

LUCKY SEVERSON: Superintendent Horne disagrees with just how successful the program has been, but it does seem to have created some enthusiasm with the students.

This is 16-year-old Carmen Camacho.

CARMEN CAMACHO, student: I love that class. I’m not going to lie to you. I love that class.

LUCKY SEVERSON: Why do you love it?

CARMEN CAMACHO: It’s just like you get to learn other people’s culture. You get to learn other — where other people came from.

LUCKY SEVERSON: John Ward thinks the part of the new law that prohibits teaching the overthrow of the U.S. government is not overreaching.

Do you think they were actually teaching that in these classes?

JOHN WARD: I do. When they teach that the entire governmental system is solely the product of the white power structure, and that these students essentially have to resist that, the end result is that you essentially have to either totally overthrow or in some way totally remake the government.

JULIO CAMMAROTA: That’s treason. And we wouldn’t be teaching students to overthrow and be traitors of their country. We actually teach students to actually love the country and love to be here and be able to participate and contribute to this country.

LUCKY SEVERSON: While the grownups fight it out in Arizona, the kids who attend ethnic studies are learning how democracy works.

RAY SUAREZ: The law allows the state to withhold 10 percent of monthly education aid for schools that violate the new law. Eleven educators in Tucson’s Mexican-American Studies Department have filed suit against the superintendent and the state board of education.