Arizona Teachers Sue to Protect Ethnic Studies

Supporters hope a court injunction will keep classes going well past December.

By Julianne Hing Oct 19, 2010

On Monday, Tucson educators filed their long-awaited lawsuit against outgoing Arizona school chief Tom Horne and the State Board of Education to fight back against a newly passed ethnic studies ban.

HB 2281 was signed into law by Gov. Jan Brewer in May, and prohibits Arizona public and charter schools from offering courses that teach students to "resent or hate other races or classes of people." It bans any course that "promote[s] the overthrow of the United States government; promote[s] resentment toward a race or class of people;" or "is designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group" or "advocate[s] ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals."

The plaintiffs, all ethnic studies teachers, argue that their classes do not violate the law, but say they hope that by suing Horne and the state board, the court will grant an injunction that allows classes to continue uninterrupted. Since HB 2281 was passed, ethnic studies courses, which teach Arizona high school students about the histories of people of color, have soared in popularity.

The language of HB 2281 puts its critics in a bind; the bill targets ethnic studies classes without naming them expressly. Horne, who is running for Arizona state attorney general, has acknowledged that the law was written to target Tucson high school ethnic studies programs, but the court will now have to debate the terms of the law, which are full of coded language. Horne is threatened by students of color forming what he calls "ethnic solidarity" with one another, but ethnic studies educators argue that the courses give students of color a sense of pride in their heritage and belonging to the country and their communities.

Tucson’s KVOA reports:

Sean Arce says, "I am defending the teaching of Mexican American Chicano history, culture and the contributions. So that my own children Mya and Ameliano know the importance of where they came from and where they are going."

Supporters say the courses promote heritage, but Dr. Tom Horne, Superintendent of Public Instruction says la raza studies intimidate and divide students based on race.

In a statement to News 4, Dr. Horne who is named in the suit says quote, "I have letters from teachers and former teachers detailing the radical agenda that takes place in these classes."

Attorney Richard Martinez also pointed out that ethnic studies courses improve students’ grades elsewhere and that students enrolled in them have shown higher graduation rates than students who did not.

In the Arizona attorney general’s race, Horne currently leads his opponent, Democrat Felecia Rotellini, by a four-point margin.

Horne’s potential school chief replacement, Republican nominee John Huppenthal, has said he does not support ethnic studies programs but would investigate the matter before acting.

"No school district has a right to provide incorrect, unfactual American history that pits a class against another," Huppenthal told Arizona’s KGUN9. "It’s unhealthy and if that’s what going on there’s going to be a confrontation."

Huppenthal’s opponent, Democrat Penny Kotterman, supports Tucson’s ethnic studies program.

"I believe that the ethnic studies bill is politically motivated, that it gives way too much power to the office of the Superintendent of instruction and that it takes away local control," she told KGUN.

HB 2281 goes into effect on Dec. 31 of this year. Districts found in violation of it risk losing 10 percent of their state funding every year.