Should Schools Cut Classes and Ban Books to Avoid Racial Issues?

Protesters urge Tuscon, Arizona school board members to reconsider eliminating ethnic studies.
Protesters urge Tuscon, Arizona school board members to reconsider eliminating ethnic studies.

To many educators and students, the Mexican-American Studies program in Tucson, Arizona, schools promoted cultural diversity and supported at-risk kids. But to the state's superintendent of schools, the classes fostered racial unrest -- and violated a state law that prohibits classes advocating ethnic solidarity, promoting racial resentment, or that are primarily for one ethnic group.

"A troubling, common theme arose time and time again in course and instructional materials, books and lesson plans: Latino minorities have been and continue to be oppressed by a Caucasian majority," Superintendent of schools, John Huppenthal wrote in a 2011 press release. "The assertion that TUSD's Mexican American Studies Program was designed and implemented only to promote cultural diversity and a greater understanding of the role of Mexican Americans in this nation is inaccurate and incomplete."

Though the schools insist that the program was in compliance with the law, an Arizona judge upheld Huppenthal's decision and, faced with a penalty of nearly $15 million if they didn't comply, Tucson Unified School District board members last week voted 4 to 1 to eliminate Mexican American studies program rather than lose the state funds.

The change went into effect immediately. Last Tuesday morning, students were enrolled in Chicano history and Chicano literature classes, but when they showed up at school Wednesday morning they were taking American history and English lit. Their textbooks -- including the award-winning "Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years" and "Pedagogy of the Oppressed" by Paolo Freire -- were "cleared from all classrooms, boxed up and sent to the Textbook Depository for storage," district spokeperson Cara Rene said.

Rene Martinez, who taught Mexican American studies at Mansfeld Middle School in Tucson, told the Los Angeles Times that his students are angry, confused, and sad about the change.

"My students asked me, 'Why are they getting rid of this class? Can you explain?' " he said. "We do our best to explain the history of the law, but it's hard to comprehend how we've come to this point." Eleven teachers and two students are challenging the measure, saying that it violates their First Amendment rights.

While the board members who agreed to dismantle the program say that they did so because they didn't want to lose state funding -- all four said they supported revamping the program, the Arizona Star reported, though none explained how to do so -- some see the move as proof that the state is trying to put a damper on Latino culture and political clout.

"Unfortunately, our local school board cowered to the political pressure and the racism of our state Legislature, superintendent of schools and attorney general," Sean Arce, the director of Tucson's Mexican American Studies program, told the LA Times.

"I feel that this board doesn't understand the impact beyond our TUSD community," Adelita Grijalva, the only member of the Tucson Unified School District who voted against the decision, told the Arizona Star. "This is an issue that is not going to go away by this vote. When bad laws are written, they are usually picked up by other states. This is an opportunity to fight a bad law."

But school board member Miguel Cuevas, who voted to eliminate the program, explained that it came down to money, not race. "I couldn't justify seeing $15 million cut from all our students just so less than 1 percent can take the class," he said..

Eliminating a class is one thing, but banning books is another. Though the Mexican American Studies classes weren't required for all students, now that books by Chicano, Latino, and Native American authors have been removed from the classrooms, how are students supposed to learn that history has more than one point of view? School administrators were ordered to avoid any class units where "race, ethnicity, and oppression are central themes" -- including Shakespeare's "The Tempest," which was also banned.

"The only other time a book of mine was banned was in 1986, when the apartheid government in South Africa banned 'Strangers in Their Own Country,' a curriculum I'd written that included a speech by then-imprisoned Nelson Mandela," Bill Bigelow, who edited "Rethinking Columbus," told "We know what the South African regime was afraid of. What is the Tucson school district afraid of?"

What do you think? Does a class that focuses on a single ethnicity promote resentment or improve understanding? And should a public school have the right to ban books in order to avoid unrest?

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