Arizona’s ethnic studies gap

The Tucson Unified School District was forced to shut down its Mexican American Studies program earlier this year after Arizona Supt. of Public Instruction John Huppenthal threatened to withhold millions of dollars in state aid. Huppenthal said the program violated a state law banning classes that promote “racial resentment,” encourage “ethnic solidarity” or advocate the overthrow of the United States.

Fortunately, Huppenthal’s attempt to bully the district with this obnoxious law wasn’t entirely successful. As it turns out, the Mexican American Studies program was created as part of a federal desegregation court order three decades ago. That order is still in force, and an updated plan, filed this month by a court-appointed special master, would require the school district to continue to offer culturally relevant classes, including on Latino and African American history. Whether the district formally reinstates the original Mexican American Studies program or tweaks it and renames it will be up to Tucson school officials to decide, but what’s clear is that the federal plan will trump state law.

That’s a relief. State officials should not be penalizing schools for teaching overlooked chapters of American history out of some misplaced concern that such lessons might raise difficult questions or promote resentment — and without any evidence that a problem exists. By that logic, Arizona’s schools could also be prohibited from discussing the Civil War or Native American history for fear that it might spark anger among students.


So far, the only thing that state officials have accomplished is to eliminate a program that research suggests was helping students, not hurting them, and to further burnish Arizona’s reputation as a state inhospitable to Latino residents. A University of Arizona report released this month found that students who participated in the Mexican American Studies program had better test scores and graduation rates than those who didn’t. That’s the same conclusion that an independent audit commissioned by Huppenthal’s office reached in 2011.

The state has until Wednesday to file any objections to the plan. We hope Huppenthal, the state attorney general and the Legislature drop their misguided efforts to keep ethnic studies out of Tucson’s schools. Curriculum decisions should not be made by politicians pandering for votes. Arizona officials should stop trying to solve phantom problems and instead focus their attention on the very real issues facing Tucson’s Latino and African American students, including the need to reduce dropout rates.