Ethnic Studies: Teaching Resentment Or Pride?

Arizona's Superintendent of Public Instruction recently put an end to Mexican American studies classes in Tucson, saying they violated state law. On Wednesday, host Michel Martin heard from Superintendent John Huppenthal. Today Martin speaks with Adelita Grijalva, the sole Tucson School Board member who voted to preserve the program.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, poetry may have an important place in literary history, but does it have a future? We'll hear about efforts to bring new life to that art form. That's a little later in the program.

But first, we want to revisit the story about that controversial Mexican-American studies program that was suspended earlier this month in Tucson, Arizona's public schools. That came after Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal found the course is in violation of state law, a law that he, in fact, helped write. The law bans, among other things, classes that can cause, quote, "resentment towards other races or groups of people."

We spoke with Mr. Huppenthal yesterday, and he said the classes violated the rule. I want to play a short clip of our lengthy conversation.

JOHN HUPPENTHAL: To tell young kids that they can't get ahead, that they're victims in a country in which Barack Obama's president, it defies what we know. We know that you can engage in America. You can get ahead. That these kids can succeed.

MARTIN: If want to hear the entire interview, just go to our website. Go to NPR.org and select TELL ME MORE from the Programs tab.

We thought it was important to get a different perspective, so we've called upon Adelita Grijalva. She is a member of the Tucson Unified School Board and she cast the lone vote in support of the program after Mr. Huppenthal's decision and she is with us now. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

ADELITA GRIJALVA: Well, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Now, you had the opportunity to hear our conversation with Mr. Huppenthal. And I just wanted to ask, when you first heard these questions raised about the Mexican-American studies program - and this dispute has been going on for some time now - what was your reaction?

GRIJALVA: Initially, our reaction was, we're in compliance with the law. In the law, it highlights areas that would be in violation of the law, like promoting the overthrow of the government, promoting ethnic solidarity, promoting design for one ethnic group. And I thought, you know, these classes are not out of compliance with those.

So, our initial stance was, we're not out of compliance. Whether we agree or disagree with the law, I mean, that was going to be our position. And so, initially, there was an audit. We did an internal audit of the program and there were found to be no issues. And that's when the data starts coming out that the students in Mexican-American studies in TUSD are more likely to graduate high school, do better in AIMS and go on to higher education than students that are not taking these courses.

And so, I think that that's important to highlight. And one of the reasons why these programs were initially created was a response to the mandates of No Child Left Behind, to basically address the issue that minority children have lower academic success than their non-minority counterparts.

MARTIN: Well, that was actually going to be my next question which is, what do you think the benefit of these courses has been or is or would be? Well, the courses have been suspended. So, what do you think the primary benefit of them has been?

GRIJALVA: Essentially, 11 years later - we started this program in 2002 - and 11 years later, we have created a program that does meet the needs of these children and is showing academic gains in all subject areas. Even if, you know, the classes that they're taking are a history course or a literature course, their math scores, reading scores, everything else, is improved. And they're going to college at a higher rate than their non-Mexican-American studies peers.

MARTIN: Well, Mr. Huppenthal disputes those gains. So, let's set that aside because we can't resolve that here. What about the substance of his argument and the argument of his predecessor as state superintendent that these courses create a sense of grievance, that they create a sense of victimization and that they spur resentment among particularly the Mexican-American students taking them toward their white peers and toward the society at large. How do you respond to that?

GRIJALVA: You know, I really feel, on the contrary, the courses teach our students that they can rise up over any obstacle, over any form of oppression. It discusses what the Mexican-American experience has been in our history. The students leave basically believing that they can not only change their lives, but they can change the world. These classes show, you know, these students that they have a right to an education, a right to vote, a right to equal protections that generations before them fought for. And they should take advantage of those opportunities.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're talking about that dispute over that now-suspended Mexican-American studies program in Tucson, Arizona schools. Our guest is Adelita Grijalva. She cast the lone vote on the Tucson School Board to preserve the program after the state school superintendent voted to suspend it at the risk of - it needs to be said - millions of dollars in financial penalties if the school board failed to suspend the program. We heard from the state superintendent on yesterday's program. So, why do you think that these classes became the object of concern?

GRIJALVA: It really comes down to a guest speaker that one of our high schools, Tucson High, had during Cesar Chavez Week. And Dolores Huerta made a statement that we put on our website as, you know, she was a guest speaker. It was put on our website and different people heard it and reported it as an issue. And one of the comments that she made was, Republicans hate Latinos. And so, Tom Horne, who was then the superintendent of schools, came down with his right-hand person, Margaret Dugan, who is a Republican and is Latina, and wanted to speak to the children to address that issue.

And so, they were obviously allowed into the school. Students came into an assembly. And students asked, can we ask questions? Because, usually, they just raise their hand up and ask questions. And Mr. Horne said, you write the questions down. I will review the questions and I'll pick out questions I want to ask.

And so, the students felt that they were being censored. And so, they did a political demonstration. They put tape over their mouth and stood up during the presentation and he felt that was incredibly disrespectful and tied it back to these classes and the things that they were learning.

MARTIN: Yeah. We asked about that and Mr. Huppenthal - I asked Mr. Huppenthal about that and he kind of acknowledged that it was partly about that, but he said it's bigger than that. You think that, all these years later, it's about that one assembly?

GRIJALVA: I do. I think that that started it. It started the ball rolling. And then there were some exchanges between TUSD and the state, because TUSD has always felt that this is an issue of local control and we should decide as a school district what curriculum takes place in our classes.

And so up until January, there was not a willingness on the majority of the board to change or cease offering these courses. And so, really, that just happened in January. And I think that, unfortunately, I have colleagues on the board that don't see the value, that feel like history isn't being taught with a balanced view.

Well, I wonder how you teach some of these parts of our history without being one-sided. I mean, how do you talk about the fact that there is a sign that is in one of our picture books that students can no longer access that says, No Mexicans or Dogs Allowed? That is a picture that was taken in a part of our history. And I feel like, unfortunately, we're moving in the direction in this country where we're rewriting history and eliminating or downplaying the unsavory parts that we don't want to remember.

MARTIN: Adelita Grijalva is a member of the Tucson Unified School District, and she was kind enough to join us from her office in Tucson, Arizona. Ms. Grijalva, thank you so much for speaking with us.

GRIJALVA: Well, thank you. Thanks for having me. I appreciate the opportunity.

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