Critics of a new Arizona law signed by Republican Gov. Jan Brewer last week that aims to ban ethnic studies in the Tucson public school system say the courses and curriculum were originally created to help settle a race discrimination lawsuit in the 1970s.
Officials with the Tucson Unified School District say the ethnic studies courses were part of a measure to reduce racial disparities across the school system and end a court-ordered desegregation decree.
Civil rights activists note the fight to include ethnic studies courses was a battle against racial injustice and inequity in the public school system.
In 1974, an African American couple with the support of the NAACP sued the Tucson school district, alleging racial bias in the makeup of its schools, staff, student discipline rates, and student services. Months later, a Latino parent in Tucson, with the support of the Hispanic community also sued the district, making similar charges. Eventually the cases were merged and four years later a Tucson U.S. District Court judge oversaw a settlement.
The district adopted new hiring practices. Suspension and expulsion rates among Blacks, Latinos and other minorities to ensure they were not disproportionate to their peers were also tracked. School boundaries and busing to balance the demographic makeup of classes were also changed.
In the settlement it was agreed that an African American studies program be started. In 1997 a Mexican American studies program was added.
For three decades the court monitored the district's compliance with the settlement and a final plan approved by the judge was approved in December. It calls for annual reviews of the two programs by the district's Department of Student Equity. The plan said the courses would actually help the district identify other inequities and that the Mexican American studies program should be expanded due to high demand by the students.
Today the Tucson's Unified School District is 56 percent Latino, with nearly 31,000 Latino students. The program offers specialized courses in African American, Mexican American and Native American studies that focus on history, literature and social justice.
The recent move to ban the ethnic studies programs was largely due to the outlandish criticism of Tom Horne, a Republican and current superintendent of the state Board of Education. The bill was written to target the Chicano, or Mexican American, studies program in the Tucson school system.
Horne argues the classes promote revolutionary ideology such as: "the overthrow of the U.S. government, promote resentment toward a race or class of people, are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group," and "advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of students as individuals."
However officials with the Tucson school district, including Judy Burns, president of the district's governing body, say the program benefits students and promotes critical thinking. The program doesn't promote resentment, and they believe it would comply with the new law, officials add.
Burns said she has no intention of ending the program, which offers classes from elementary school through high school and is open to all students.
Students and educators who defend the programs argue they teach student's history from a multicultural perspective, and help them analyze public services to find evidence of discrimination. Students read about court cases and learn to do research based on data, such as school enrollment, poverty figures and disparities in the education system. Stereotypes of young people, including stereotypes of students who are gay or lesbian are also examined.
Tucson's Mexican American Studies Director Martin Sean Arce said instructors in the program teach students about the methods of civil rights leaders Gandhi, King and Chavez.
Students say the ethnic studies courses have been unfairly demonized.
Some 200 students walked out of school last week and jammed into the Tucson school district's offices to protest the law and Mr. Horne who was expected to have a meeting there. Officials were forced to cancel the meeting.
At Tucson Unified High School's graduation ceremony next week, students will be handed voter-registration forms along with their diplomas. School officials say if the students want to change what happens in the state of Arizona, they have to vote.