Ethnic studies were first brought to Superintendent Tom Horne’s attention in April 2006 when civil rights activist Dolores Huerta said “Republicans hate Latinos” while speaking at an assembly at a Tucson high school.
After the incident, Horne said he was asked to ban controversial speakers. Instead, he made sure the students would hear both sides of the issue.
Horne took his deputy superintendent, Margaret Garcia Dugan, back to the same high school to have the students hear from a Republican Hispanic who grew up in an immigrant, Spanish-speaking home.
During Dugan’s speech, Raza Studies students stood up, put their backs to the speaker and held their fists in the air, Horne said. After the principal requested that they be respectful and listen, the students walked out of the assembly.
“These students did not learn to be rude at home,” Horne said. “Their parents taught them to be polite. They learned that rudeness from their Raza Studies teachers.”
In an effort to ban courses in public schools promoting hatred of another race or the overthrow of the U.S. government, the House Education Committee passed H2281 after an 8-0 vote on Feb. 15.
The bill was sponsored by Rep. Steve Montenegro, a Litchfield Park Republican, who had the issue of classes being designed for students of a specific ethnicity brought to his attention by members of his district and Horne, he said.
There is evidence of ethnic programs being taught in classrooms that relate to separatism and race division, plus one school district has admitted to allowing these courses, Montenegro said.
“It promotes an atmosphere or a mentality of ‘us versus them,’ a minority verses a white culture, and in my opinion, personally, it’s wrong,” he said. “It’s victimology. It’s teaching certain students to be victims because of their race, because of their gender or because of their ethnicity.”
As a Hispanic born in El Salvador, Montenegro said he noticed situations going through college that encouraged students to have a “fight-back mentality.”
“Something needs to be done,” Montenegro said. “A year and a half ago I was looking at this and committing myself to do what I can to make things right, to stop this kind of racial divide in public instruction.”
After Montenegro spoke, Horne provided several examples as to why they felt the bill was necessary. It also became clear that this issue was focused primarily on the Tucson Unified School District.
Horne said that after the incident in 2006, he requested to view the course materials for the Raza Studies program. The primary textbook was “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” by Paulo Freire, a well-known Brazilians communist, and includes Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and Che Guevara as sources, he said.
“What they’re doing is extremely dysfunctional to these students because to succeed as an adult, you have to be able to deal with disagreement in a civil way, and if you’re taught by radical teachers to get in peoples’ faces and be destructive, that is a prescription for an unsuccessful adulthood,” Horne said.
Speaking against the bill, University of Arizona student Tanya Lozano, of the Social Justice Education Project that works with the Mexican-American/Raza Studies Department in the Tucson Unified School District, said it was the third time a bill had been proposed that would get rid of the department.
“(These bills) are dehumanizing to our community,” Lozano said. “Not once has anyone come into our classrooms to see what we’re actually teaching, what we’re actually learning. If you were to go to our classes, you would see that we promote nothing but love and respect, and we are all-inclusive to all cultures, races and ethnicities.”
Lozano was a student herself in the Raza Studies program. She said she is a better person because of what she learned in those classes.
“This bill talks about promoting only western American culture and values, but America wasn’t created with one culture and one set of values in mind,” she said. “To take away these classes, you are denying students the right to learn what makes their country so beautiful and unique.”
The bill would prohibit public schools from offering courses that are designed primarily for a specific ethnic group, which raised questions among lawmakers.
Democratic Reps. David Schapira and Nancy Young Wright asked Horne during the hearing if this would include women’s, African-American or Jewish studies, especially at the collegiate level.
“If we want to talk about the university level, we probably should do it in a different context,” Horne said. “This deals with high school, but there is a lot to criticize in the university race-based programs as well.”
Schapira said that he and Horne share a religion, Judaism, and he specifically asked Horne whether he would ban the Jewish Studies program at Arizona State University.
“If it were race oriented, I probably would,” Horne said.
Horne said all students are required to study different cultures, and he is not suggesting that they shouldn’t.
“What I’m objecting to, as racism, is dividing kids by their races and then teaching each group just about their own culture and not about other cultures,” he said.