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Judge Blocks Arizona Ethnic Studies Ban That Alleged the Courses May Promote Resentment Toward a Race

Tucson Education Legal Battle

A federal judge is permanently blocking a 2010 ban on ethnic studies in Arizona public schools that dismantled a popular Mexican-American Studies program, effectively dealing a final blow to a seven-year court battle. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, file)

PHOENIX (AP) — A U.S. judge has permanently blocked an ethnic studies ban in Arizona public schools that dismantled a popular Mexican-American studies program, dealing a final blow to a law that he found to be racially motivated.

Following a seven-year court battle, U.S. District Judge A. Wallace Tashima issued a final judgment Wednesday that prohibits Arizona education officials from enforcing the 2010 law, which stirred up additional allegations of racial discrimination by a state that passed a landmark crackdown on immigration the same year.

Tashima had previously ruled that racism and political gain were behind the ban’s creation, findings that he reiterated in this week’s decision.

Because the law “was enacted and enforced, not for a legitimate educational purpose, but for an invidious discriminatory racial purpose, and a politically partisan purpose … (the law) cannot be enforced,” he wrote.

Attorneys for the state have denied that racial discrimination played a part in the law. The Arizona Attorney General’s Office, which defended education officials in the case, said it may appeal the ruling.

“We will consult with the superintendent and see how she would like to proceed,” spokesman Ryan Anderson said. “Additionally, we have an obligation to evaluate the likelihood of success on appeal for the individual findings.”

The office has until Jan. 26 to appeal. Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas and the state Board of Education did not immediately reply to messages seeking comment Thursday.

The law banned courses appearing to promote resentment toward a race or class of people or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of treating people as individuals.

Lawmakers passed it after Tucson Unified School District began offering classes in 1998 focused on Mexican-American history, literature and art.

Steven Reiss, an attorney for Tucson students who sued over the law, praised the ruling.

“That should make it clear to everyone in the state: This law is not only invalid and cannot be enforced, it makes it clear that the Tucson Unified School District is absolutely free to readopt the Mexican-American studies program,” Reiss said.

Nolan Cabrera, an associate professor at the University of Arizona’s Center for the Study of Higher Education, led a study that said students who took Mexican-American studies were more likely to graduate and pass their standardized tests.

If the judge’s decision stands, it could open the door to more effective ethnic studies programs in all Arizona school districts, Cabrera said. Schools in other states such as California, Oregon, Nevada and Washington have already taken the lead in offering such options.

“You can put in Maya Angelou and take out Shakespeare and say, ‘I have an ethnic studies program,'” Cabrera said. “That’s not what we’re talking about here, not just a tokenizing version of the curriculum.”

The Tucson school district ceased the classes in 2012 to avoid the threat of losing 10 percent of their state funding. District officials did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment Thursday.

By 2015, the district was expanding a “culturally relevant” curriculum developed after a separate racial desegregation lawsuit. Those courses, which include American history from an African-American perspective, are now taught at all district high schools.

Democratic Rep. Sally Ann Gonzales of Tucson said it’s important for Arizona to teach the history of minority communities.

“Attacking the Mexican-American studies program sends the wrong message to Arizona’s students and denies the state’s rich and diverse history,” Gonzales said in a statement.

During a July trial over the lawsuit, Tom Horne, a former state attorney general and state superintendent, defended the law he drafted. He testified that he was troubled by what he described as radical instructors teaching students to be disruptive but insisted he targeted all ethnic studies programs equally.

Sherman Dorn, a professor at Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, said it will be beneficial if more school districts offer classes with more than one perspective.

“A good social studies class will give students the opportunity to learn about a subject from a variety of perspectives,” Dorn said.

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