On Jan. 1, Arizona’s ban on the Mexican American Studies curriculum used in Tucson high schools went into effect. The weeks since have been marked by confusion and backtracking as the district leaders and teachers scramble to comply with the state law. The fight is far from over, though, with a federal lawsuit pending and ongoing organizing taking place.
Initially, the Tucson Unified School District Board of Education seemed poised to refuse compliance. But it quickly caved when State Superintendent John Huppenthal, who thought up this whole thing, slapped the district with a $4.9 million penalty by cutting its state funding retroactively to last August.
How do you get rid of a program that has, by all educational standards, been successful for more than a decade? Apparently, the first step is to strip that curriculum of the material that gives it heft. This week, the district began removing seven books from MAS classrooms, which were boxed up and stored in a warehouse where books go to die. That list includes "Occupied America: A History of Chicanos," Paulo Freire’s "Pedagogy of the Oppressed," "Rethinking Columbus," "Critical Race Theory," Shakespeare’s "The Tempest" and "Chicano!: the History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement."
The removal is to be thorough–teachers are not allowed to keep even personal copies of these books in their classrooms. Students and teachers described their fear and heartbreak at an emotional community meeting over the past weekend.
It isn’t just the books but also the context in which they are being taught that is problematic for the district. As the list has made its way around the country, the district immediately objected to accusations of banning books. In a statement, the district said that it had not banned the books, but simply removed them from classes that had been banned. The books could still be found in other classrooms across the district, and in its libraries.
Jeff Biggers, who has done excellent, consistent journalism on this issue, reported the following availability: two copies of "Pedagogy of the Oppressed," one copy of "Critical Race Theory" in the online catalog and of 16 in-district copies of "Rethinking Columbus," none are in Tucson High School, the home of the Mexican American Studies curriculum. So these books can still be read and taught, says the district, just not in the context of Mexican American Studies and racial politics.
That is the problem, for instance, with "The Tempest," Shakespeare’s play about colonialism and slavery. Teacher Curtis Acosta, who designed much of the banned curriculum and led its implementation, recorded a meeting with district administrators last Wednesday. Everyone is clearly confused, and trying to protect the district. So administrators tell Acosta in the meeting that it would be best not to teach "The Tempest" using the "nexus of race, class and oppression" or "issues of critical race theory."
In an interview with Biggers, Acosta notes that he was told to avoid texts and lessons with race or oppression as central themes. He further notes that there may be penalties if students independently address these themes: "We also have not received confirmation that the ideas, dialogue, and class work of our students will be protected…. if I avoid discussing such themes in class, yet the students see the themes and decide to write, discuss or ask questions in class, we may also be found to be in violation."
Three things strike me about this situation.
First, I’m impressed with the rigor of this curriculum. I have read most of these books, and the "Critical Race Theory" anthology is challenging even for me, with 25 years of such theory and a lot of practice under my belt. No wonder this program raised grades and graduation rates so successfully.
Second, I think of books as living entities that come alive when a reader engages them. It hurts me to think of lonely books stuck in storage.
Finally, and most importantly, I understand that in this process, the state and the district will come up with all kinds of maneuvers to replace this curriculum against the will of the teachers, administrators, students and parents who have benefitted in myriad ways from its existence. The powers that be will constantly make and unmake regulations because there is no easy way to do this. All that inconsistency will make no difference to the Hornes and Huppenthals and Brewers who put it in place, because their objective has already been met–to put the Mexican American community on the defensive by reinforcing its un-American image, and to prevent any progressive discussion of racial politics in the state. They aren’t opposed to racial politics, just to a brand that counters their own.
When I was in Tucson last fall with the CultureStrike delegation, I toured historic South Tucson with Salomon Baldenegro, a local civil rights hero who is featured in "Chicano!". Baldenegro, now in his 60s, told us he was an early reader and fluent English speaker, but when he started school, all kids of Mexican descent, no matter how deep their roots in Arizona, were put into Americanization programs where they "learned" English and American games. When Baldenegro’s mom registered him for school, the principal tested his reading. The little boy read out loud a book for first graders, then one for second graders and then one for third graders. The principal accused him of having memorized all the books and refused to put him in the proper class for his level. Some 60 years later, the state of Arizona, having had to desegregate its schools, has come up with a new way to Americanize Mexican Americans.
The state will fail, just as they did with Baldenegro’s generation. Tucson activists, while understandably angry and disappointed, project an optimism that we often don’t expect from people who have been so put upon for so long, and they are far from giving up. But they can’t protect their right to knowledge alone. The rest of us need to back them up, by following their fight, by talking to our own friends and neighbors about it, and by taking action when we are asked.