New AZ Law Targets 'Ethnic Studies' Programs

Arizona has a new law that will closely regulate ethnic studies programs in state schools. Any school offering programs perceived to be galvanizing ethnic solidarity will have a portion of its public funding withheld. Guest host Allison Keyes speaks with Superintendent Tom Horne, of the Arizona Department of Education, who has been a leading backer of the law. She also speaks with Sean Arce, director of the Mexican-American Studies Program in the Tucson Unified School District, who calls the initiative racist, and is planning to participate in a legal challenge against it.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

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

Coming up, the business of trafficking young girls for sex, and it's happening right under our noses in this country.

But first, Arizona isn't shying away from national headlines after the controversy stirred up by its new immigration law, the toughest on illegal immigrants in the country.

Another new state law signed Tuesday targets ethnic studies programs in the state schools, and it's got more than a few educators, parents and students a little riled up. The law targets classes that, according to the state superintendent, encourage students to resent a particular race - namely, Caucasians. He cites as an example Tucson school district, which offers courses in Mexican-American, Native-American and African-American studies.

We've got both the Arizona school superintendent and Tucson's director of Mexican-American studies on the line to tell us what they think. Tom Horne is the state school's chief. He's also running as a Republican for attorney general in Arizona. Also, Sean Arce is with us from the Tucson Unified School District.

Thank you, gentlemen, for being with us.

Mr. TOM HORNE (State Superintendent, Arizona): Thank you for having us, Allison.

Mr. SEAN ARCE (Tucson Unified School District): Thank you for having us, Allison.

KEYES: Mr. Horne, let's focus on the Mexican-American studies classes, since that's kind of a focal point of the legislature. What is it that you've heard being taught that's either offensive or inappropriate for the ears of students?

Mr. HORNE: Well, we have testimony from a number of teachers and former teachers. One is Hector Ayala, who is a current teacher, was himself born in Mexico, but he's an excellent English teacher, teaches at a very high level. The former director of Raza studies taught next to him, and accused him of being the white man's agent because he accused - he opposed that thing. He was told by students that he taught a separate political agenda, and that students told him they were taught to not fall for the white man's traps.

We have another former teacher who says the whole inference and tone was anger. They taught students that the United States was and still is a fundamentally racist country to those Mexican-American kids. Individuals in this ethnic studies department are vehemently anti-Western culture. They are vehemently opposed to the United States and its power. They are telling students they are victims. They should be angry and rise up. By the time I left that class, I saw a change in the students, he said - an angry tone.

We have testimony from other teachers I can read to you if you want to, but that gives you a picture of it. One of their principle textbooks is called "The Pedagogy of the Oppressed" by Paulo Freire, who's a well-known Brazilian Marxist. I've read the book. His sources are Marx, Lenin, Engels, Che Guevara and the philosophers who influenced them.

KEYES: Mr. Arce, is that what's going on in the Mexican-American studies program?

Mr. ARCE: Not whatsoever. Not at all. We are about culturally relevant and curriculum. We're about engaging students, and we're about providing multiple perspectives for our students so they have a more comprehensive view and better understanding of the totality of the American experience and American history.

KEYES: What exactly is being taught? Is it Latin-American authors? Is it just history? I mean, what - briefly.

Mr. ARCE: Yes. We actually are in alignment with the Arizona State standards for both history, as well as language arts. So we covered the traditional standards for the state of Arizona for American history. But we also have a more inclusive outlook, and we highlight and insert more of the Mexican-American contributions to this great nation.

KEYES: So there's nothing as far as you know that is anti-white that's - or anti-USA that's being taught in those classes?

Mr. ARCE: Most definitely not. We are about upholding the Constitution of the United States. We're about highlighting, and the students are able to analyze -critically analyze history from multiple perspectives, so they have a more comprehensive outlook on how this country was formed and how Mexican-Americans and all people have contributed to the fabric of this great nation.

KEYES: And students of all colors are welcome in these classes? And people that are not of Hispanic descent are encouraged to enroll?

Mr. ARCE: Oh, most definitely. This class is not in any way limited to Latino students. All students are welcome to take this class.

KEYES: Superintendent Horne, is it wrong to highlight the contributions of specific ethnicities that you might not have heard about before? I mean, when I was growing up in Chicago, they didn't focus a whole lot about the history and culture of people of color. I realize that has changed in many ways, but is that not something important that kids need to know?

Mr. HORNE: Absolutely. And the standards that my department promulgates, we require in the social studies classes that the students learn about contributions of all different cultures. We think that's very important. But what we're against is ghettoizing students. Raza studies for the Mexican kids. African-American studies for the African-American kids. Asian studies for the Asian kids. Indian studies for the Native-American kids - and then just teach them about the contributions of the group that they happen to have been born into.

We think kids should be taught together. They should be taught to treat each other as individuals, that what race they happened to have been born into is irrelevant. What's relevant is what you know, what you can do, what's your character, not what race you happened to have been born into. And we teach the contributions of different groups together in a social studies class for all kids.

The job of the public schools is to bring kids from different backgrounds together and teach them to treat each other as individuals. I'll read to you a brief sentence from a third teacher. She's overheard the Raza studies teacher tell students that they need to go to college so they can gain the power to take back the stolen land and give it back to Mexico. He personally told me that he teaches his students that Republicans hate Latinos, and he has the legislation to prove it. When he asked him about Mexican-American Republicans who are against illegal immigration, he said this is an example of self-racism.

We have a very different picture presented by the department to the outside world, and then testimony of teachers and ex-teachers as to what's really going on there.

KEYES: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about Arizona's new law restricting ethnic studies programs in the state's public schools. I'm speaking with Arizona state superintendent Tom Horne, a supporter of the new law, and Sean Arce, director of the Mexican-American studies program and the Tucson Unified School District.

Superintendent, if you are a member of a particular ethnic background, is there not some right or reason for you to learn something about your ethnic and cultural background?

Mr. HORNE: Certainly. But that shouldn't be the only thing you learn. You need to learn about all different backgrounds and all different cultures. School should be a place that broadens your horizon. The word education comes from the word ex, which is from educo, which is Latin, to lead. So it's to lead out - to lead out from the narrowness of learning only about your background, to learn about all different backgrounds. And that's what we strive to do in our standards for our social studies classes.

It's contrary, I believe, to American values to divide kids by race and teach each race only about its own contributions. We want to teach all kids about all different contributions.

KEYES: Mr. Arce, are the children divided by race in these classes? Or is this kids of all colors that are, like, hey, I'm going to take African-American studies. That sounds interesting.

Mr. ARCE: The kids aren't divided by race whatsoever. That's a fallacy that Mr. Horne has been expounding for years. These classes are developed for all students in Tucson Unified School District. His rationale is the equivalent to stating that our AP European history classes in the state of Arizona, which are steeped in the history and culture of Europe, are only for European heritage students. And we know that's false.

KEYES: I've got to ask you, how many kids of other races are in those classes?

Mr. ARCE: About 90 percent of the students that do take our classes at the high school level are Mexican-American and Latino, and the remaining 10 percent are white Anglo, African-America, Native American.

KEYES: If the classes are 90 percent Mexican, why aren't more kids of other ethnicities taking them?

Mr. ARCE: Because many of these schools that we do have, these courses where we do provide this coursework, it's very much reflective and consistent with the demographics of the school.

KEYES: So most of - the school is mostly Mexican-American, is what you're saying.

Mr. ARCE: That is correct.

KEYES: Okay. How are you and Tucson Unified going to respond to this law?

Mr. ARCE: We're going to continue to teach what we teach because we know that we don't do any of those outlandish, absurd things that are written in the bill, the four major provisions. We know we, in fact, cover the Arizona state standards. We know, in fact, that our curriculum is highly engaging, that it is a very rigorous curriculum and that because of this curriculum and the high engagement in the cultural, social, historical and political relevancy of this coursework, that students are more likely to be engaged in the educational process.

KEYES: Are you going to file a legal challenge against this?

Mr. ARCE: Yes. We are - the district is not, but private citizens are going to file a legal challenge to this because we know that folks such as Superintendent Horne and some folks in the Arizona state legislature have already made up their mind, have already demonized what we are doing and are using this as a political platform to get elected into office. So we are going to file a lawsuit to protect these classes.

KEYES: Superintendent Horne, I'm going to give you a minute to respond to that political charge. But, first, let me ask you: I know you believe this program violates the new law. What kind of penalties are there if you feel that it's violating it?

Mr. HORNE: The law provides that if they continue, then we can withhold 10 percent of the funds for the school district. This would initially be a determination by the superintendent, but it would be subject to an appeal to an administrative hearing officer. So I realize that I have to prepare a case to make to an administrative hearing officer after I make my decision.

KEYES: Okay. And let me ask you to respond to Mr. Arce's political charge. I mean, you are running for attorney general in Arizona. Is this at all campaign-related? Is this good politics?

Mr. HORNE: No. I think I've been on this issue for four years now. First two years I was trying to persuade Tucson to change their ways, and then the last two years getting the bill through the legislature. This is among my most deeply held beliefs that we are to be treated as individuals and not on the basis of race.

In the summer of 1963, when I just graduated from high school, I participated in the march on Washington, where Martin Luther King gave his famous speech where he said people should be judged on the content of their character and not the color of their skin.

KEYES: So if Tucson doesn't change its classes, are you going to go after them?

Mr. HORNE: Without doubt. We have substantial testimony that what's occurring is not only dividing students by race and teaching them separately by race and teaching them only about their own culture and not about other cultures, but that there's a revolutionary curriculum going on where kids are taught -they're taught from a book called "The Pedagogy of the Oppressed."

You know, these kids, parents and grandparents came to this country, most of them legally, because this is the land of opportunity. And they trust their children to our schools. And we should be teaching these kids that this is the land of opportunity and if they work hard, they can achieve their dreams. And we should not be teaching them that they're oppressed and creating an atmosphere which, as some of the teachers testify, they become resentful toward the country, they've become resentful toward the government. They should be looking at our country hopefully as a land of opportunity, where they can achieve success.

KEYES: And Mr. Arce, very briefly, you absolutely believe that the program does not in any way promote what he just said?

Mr. ARCE: Exactly. In no way, shape or form do we do any of those outlandish, absurd things that are claimed by Mr. Horne.

KEYES: When does this take effect?

Mr. ARCE: December 31st.

KEYES: State superintendent Tom Horne joined us from his home in Phoenix. Sean Arce, director of the Mexican-American studies program at Tucson Unified School District joined us by phone from his home in Tucson. Gentlemen, thank you for a spirited discussion.

Mr. HORNE: Allison, thank you for having us.

Mr. ARCE: Thank you, Allison.

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