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Is school out on ethnic studies in Arizona?

First acts are hard to follow, but Arizona can’t be knocked for trying.

Less than a month after signing into law an immigration bill that has divided citizens and politicians alike, Ariz. Governor Jan Brewer approved a measure that restricts ethnic studies in the state’s public school curriculums.

Under the new law, classes cannot do one or all of the following:

  • Promote the overthrow of the U.S. government;
  • Promote resentment towards a race or class of people;
  • Be designed primarily for students of a particular race; and
  • Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of students as individuals.

Schools that don’t comply after receiving notice would see up to 10 percent of their funding taken away.

The bill’s primary target is a 12-year-old Mexican-American studies program in the Tucson school district that has been strongly criticized by the state’s school superintendent Tom Horne, who has called the program racist.

“When I just graduated from high school, I went to the march on Washington, in which Martin Luther King gave his famous speech in which he said we should be judged by the quality of our character, rather than the color of our skin,” Horne said in an interview with Fox New’s Greta Van Susteren.

“And this been among my deepest beliefs my entire life.  And so this has made me opposed to dividing students by race.”

The Mexican-American studies program wouldn’t be the only such program affected, since it is part of a $2-million ethnic studies department that includes African-American studies, Native American Studies and Asian Studies.
Defenders of these programs say they help integrate each culture into the larger curriculum of American history.

Mexican-American studies program director Sean Acre told the Associated Press that students “need to know that their ancestors, many of their parents, great grandparents, have contributed to this great nation.”

Criticism of the bill has reached beyond the state’s boundaries to even the United Nations, where human rights experts released a statement calling it – coupled with the recent immigration bill – “a disturbing pattern of legislative activity hostile to ethnic minorities and immigrants.

Ethnic studies education has been a not-so-third-rail lightening rod since its adoption in the midst of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s.  For years, the debate has mainly stayed on college campuses, where conservative critics argued that such classes were just left-wing propaganda. Recently it’s been part of the major fight over school textbooks in Texas, where efforts to include more historical Latino figures in schoolbooks were defeated.

With immigration in the spotlight in Arizona, it’s hard to miss the politics behind this new bill.

Horne is not only the state schools chief, but he’s also a candidate for state attorney general in a competitive Republican primary with former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, who has his own critics and admirers when it comes to immigration.  And in a state where two-thirds of GOP primary voters say a candidate’s view on immigration will affect how they vote, the stakes are high and rising.

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