Oops! Arizona Ethnic Studies Ban Makes Courses MORE Popular

But a showdown looms when the law kicks in on Dec. 31 and districts face penalties for offering the courses.

By Jamilah King Sep 22, 2010

Turns out that Arizona’s ban on ethnic studies courses in public schools may be having the opposite effect than lawmakers anticipated–the field appears to be gaining, rather than losing appeal among students.

Last spring, the state’s school superintendent Tom Horne proposed the ban, alleging that the classes were, in effect, prejudiced against white people. At best, Horne argued, they promoted "ethnic chauvinism." And at their worst, they encouraged students to overthrow the U.S. government. Riding a wave of white populist sentiment after signing SB 1070 into law, Gov. Jan Brewer then legalized the ban. Districts that refuse to comply risk losing 10 percent of their state funding, and already some of the state’s ethnic studies teachers are toying with the idea of a constitutional challenge before the law goes into effect on December 31.

Students don’t seem too bothered. In fact, Mary Ann Zehr writes in Education Week that in Tucson, which has the only district-wide ethnic studies program in the state, enrollment in Mexican-American studies has doubled. Zehr profiles Tucson High Magnet School:

At least one class in two of the courses taught from a Mexican-American perspective at this school have more than 45 students, although the union contract calls for no more than 35 students in a class. School district officials say enrollment in Mexican-American studies in Tucson Unified’s 14 high schools has nearly doubled since last school year, from 781 to 1,400 students.

"Ethnic studies allow me to read and view and analyze different forms of literature and learning from another perspective," said Krysta Diaz, 17, one of 386 students taking an ethnic-studies course at the school this year. The courses attract primarily students like Ms. Diaz, who are of Mexican-American heritage, but also draw in the occasional African-American, Anglo, or immigrant from a country other than Mexico.

It’s not a new point, but certainly a promising one, especially at the beginning of a school year that’s already muddled in national controversy. Shortly after the law, officially known as HB 2881, was passed, Daisy Hernandez reported for ColorLines that the courses were broadening:

Interviews with several professors in the field suggest that ethnic studies is (surprise, surprise) bearing the markings of race relations today: a widespread acceptance that black and brown experiences are important coupled with the complaint that we don’t need to focus on race and the rise of people of color to prominent positions juxtaposed with the ongoing need to organize and make demands on school systems.

Professor Jeff Duncan-Andrade, who teaches Raza Studies in the country’s only College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State, argued a similar point. Afraid of what goes on in ethnic studies classrooms? Visit one, Andrade says. Critics might be surprised at how confident, affirmed students of color can actually contribute to the national discourse,  not erase it.

In any case, Horne’s intentions are pretty obvious. He’s a man on a political mission with a long history of bullying the state’s Latino students. Currently, he’s running for state attorney general and trying desperately to appeal to Arizona’s aging baby boomers who can already feel their racial majority slipping. During one fit, Horne mandated that kids prove their permanent U.S. address before getting on school buses on the first day of classes.