5 Things You Should Know About Arizona’s Ethnic Studies Program Battle

By Sameer Rao Jun 26, 2017

A regional trial with national implications for education about communities of color begins today (June 26) in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona. 

As the Tucson Weekly reported earlier this month, a federal judge will hear Acosta et al. v. Huppenthal et al., a legal challenge against House Bill (HB) 2281. State lawmakers passed the bill seven years ago to crush "ethnic studies" programs—curricula addressing the history and present state of specific communities of color—in public schools. The bill prompted sustained activism to protect these programs, particularly for Mexican-American studies (MAS), that carries into the current trial. The trial’s outcome could set a precedent that impacts similar programs around the country, including those in Wisconsin and California. Here’s what you need to know: 

1. The bill originated in apparent response to Dolores Huerta criticizing state Republicans in front of Tucson high schoolers. 
The Tucson Weekly reports that MAS programs in the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) launched in 1998 and continued without major opposition until 2006, when veteran Latinx labor organizer Dolores Huerta said that "Republicans hate Latinos" in a speech to Tucson high school students.

Huerta’s statement provoked vehement opposition from Republicans throughout the state and country, including then-Arizona superintendent of public instruction Tom Horne. Horne went on to become state attorney general, and the Weekly reports he publicly championed what would become HB 2281.

2. HB 2281 critiques and outlaws ethnic studies programs using "anti-racist" and pro-government rhetoric.
From its text:

The legislature finds and declares that public school pupils should be taught to treat and value each other as individuals and not be taught to resent or hate other races or classes of people.


A. A school district or charter school in this state shall not include in its program of instruction any courses or classes that include any of the following:

  1. Promote the overthrow of the United States government.
  2. Promote resentment toward a race or class of people.
  3. Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.
  4. Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.

Sub-bullet three is especially relevant here: TUSD enrollment demographics information from the last day of the 2010-2011 school year shows that Latinx students made up 56.2 percent of its students—the highest of any racial group. That percentage rose to 63.7 percent for the 2015-2016 school year’s final day, which is the latest available data.

3. HB 2281 passed the same year as SB 1070.
Arizona house members approved HB 2281 in 2010, the same year their state senate colleagues approved Senate Bill SB 1070. The latter legislation lives in infamy as one of the country’s harshest anti-immigration bills. It allows law enforcement officers to question anyone they suspect is undocumented. Taking together, this means that school-going Latinx children of possible undocumented immigrants cannot learn about the history of activism and resistance waged against measures that target Latinx peoples.

4. Ethnic studies programs result in positive education outcomes for all participating students.
A 2011 Yes! Magazine article cites a TUSD study that indicated students in the MAS program performed and stayed in school at improved rates:

MAS was founded with the aim of reversing some disturbing academic trends for Chicano students in Tucson. It worked. In 2011, the high school dropout rate for MAS students in Tucson was 2.5 percent, as opposed to 56 percent for Latino students nationally. A study by Tucson United School District (TUSD) found that 98  percent of MAS students reported they did homework, and 66 percent went on to college. The program was widely regarded as helping Latino youth feel empowered and achieve their full academic and human potential.

A 2016 study from Stanford University researchers echoes similar findings for an ethnic studies program implemented in San Francisco, assigned to ninth-grade students with low eighth-grade GPAs: 

Our results indicate that assignment to this course increased ninth-grade student attendance by 21 percentage points, GPA by 1.4 grade points, and credits earned by 23. These surprisingly large effects are consistent with the hypothesis that the course reduced dropout rates and suggest that culturally relevant teaching, when implemented in a supportive, high-fidelity context, can provide effective support to at-risk students.

5. Educators, students and activists are still pushing for ethnic studies programs in court and on the streets.
As noted by Yes! and the Weekly, the lawsuit takes its name from lead plaintiff Curtis Acosta, one of the developers of the Tucson MAS program, and lead defendant John Huppenthal, Horne’s successor in the superintendent position. The Huffington Post notes that Huppenthal once compared MAS to Nazi Germany’s Hitler youth program and vowed in a campaign ad to "stop la raza," using a term popularized by Latinx activists in the 1970s to promote community pride and action against oppression. Huppenthal also endorsed then-state senate president Russell Pearce, who openly supported White supremacists, in a 2011 recall election.

Huppenthal successfully banned MAS in Tucson in 2012 with the bill’s backing, but not before Acosta launched the lawsuit in 2011. This week’s hearings mark the suit’s return to the U.S. District Court where a judge initially ruled it partially constitutional. Acosta’s attorneys successfully appealed the case to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, who kicked it back to the lower court. 

The Atlantic reported in 2015 that Acosta, hands tied by the new bill, left his TUSD teaching post in 2012. He then moved into education consulting, where he works with school districts across the country to implement ethnic studies programs. Some former students, meanwhile, turned to activism to protect MAS: several stormed a 2011 school board meeting and locked themselves to chairs while chanting, "When education is under attack, what do we do? Fight back!"

Their activism, and the banning of select books from the program, compelled solidarity from Houston-area writer Tony Díaz. He gathered other Latinx activists to launch the Librotraficante Caravan—a tour of Southwestern cities to bring MAS-relevant and banned books back into Tucson. The Atlantic says the group’s efforts lead to the introduction of ethnic studies in some Texas schools. Díaz relaunched the caravan for this week’s court battle, and he and other activists discuss their efforts below: