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Culture war brewing over ethnic studies in Tucson schools

Teacher Curtis Acosta lectures his Latino Literature class, which is part of the Mexican-American Studies program at Tucson High Magnet School.

Teacher Curtis Acosta lectures his Latino Literature class, which is part of the Mexican-American Studies program at Tucson High Magnet School.

Curtis Acosta instructed his Latino Literature students at Tucson High Magnet School to search in their reading assignment for the “counter narrative,” which is a concept he said underscores the achievements of people who have “been silenced and marginalized in contemporary society.”

The students whom he had chided earlier for being “dead” on this Monday morning were soon seeking answers, raising new questions and scribbling in their notebooks as they sat surrounded by walls covered in posters of revolutionaries, raised-fist protesters and activists.

Images of Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and Martin Luther King Jr. were there among lesser-known figures such as Corky Gonzalez, a pioneer in the Chicano movement, while a banner over a window advertised the school’s chapter of M.E.C.H.A., a national organization that seeks the liberation of Aztlan, an area the group claims comprises several U.S. states that is rightfully Mexico’s.

An American flag drooping from a stick leaned in the corner.

Alex Araiza, who is taking Acosta’s class, said the ethnic studies classes are more relevant to their lives and more challenging than traditional courses.

“It’s just an English class with a Chicano touch,” Araiza, a senior at the high school, said during his lunch break after the class. “It’s better than a regular English class.”

But the décor of Acosta’s classroom and some of the core principles that he is teaching represent the impact points in the upcoming clash between state education officials and the Tucson Unified School District over the curriculum used in the district’s Mexican-American Studies program.

At any point after the law takes effect Jan. 1, Arizona school officials may decide that the Tucson Unified School District is not complying with HB2281, a law passed by the Arizona Legislature this year that puts restrictions on ethnic studies courses, such as those offered as part of the Mexican-American Studies program in Tucson.

The new law outlaws classes that promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, promote resentment toward a race or class of people, are geared toward students of a particular ethnic group and advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.

“HB2281 is a big step in bringing equal curriculum to all students,” said Rep. Steve Montenegro, a Litchfield Park Republican who authored the bill. “It doesn’t matter what your race or skin color is, we need to be teaching students that everybody is equal. We shouldn’t be teaching about the overthrow of the U.S. government or promoting it. We shouldn’t be teaching resentment toward races of people.”

Acosta and one of his counterparts, teacher Maria Federico Brummer, said the law has had a chilling effect on their rights to free speech and the school district’s ability to choose what curriculum is appropriate for students. They said the district has taken steps to make sure the classes comply with the new law, which takes effect next year. Administrators and district officials agreed.

Gone are the posters of Che Guevara, whose presence opponents had said was symbolic of the divisive, racial and radical elements of the district’s program. Also absent is the program’s former name, La Raza, which became the most recognizable target of Republican frustration over the ethnic studies curriculum in Tucson high schools.

Still, some signs on the walls of Brummer’s classroom contain political messages. One of them displays the words “Stop Arpaio, Stop 287(g),” along with a dark, menacing close-up of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata against a brilliant white background.

Those messages are exactly what Republican lawmakers wanted to wipe out when they passed HB2281 in April.

Superintendent of Public Instruction-elect John Huppenthal, who visited the classes this year in his capacity as a state lawmaker, and Attorney General-elect Tom Horne, who pushed the law in his current position of state superintendent, said the Mexican-American Studies classes would be in violation of the law when it takes effect next year unless significant changes are made.

Neither Huppenthal nor Horne would reveal their specific intentions, but both indicated they would not allow the program to continue as it is now.

“There are obviously courses aimed primarily at a particular ethnicity, which is sufficient by itself for them to be out of compliance,” Horne said.

Acosta, the teacher, said that particular provision is open to interpretation and has been a focal point in the debate, but he is confident the program doesn’t violate it.

“It’s our contention that these folks haven’t really done their due diligence as far as coming down and talking to my evaluators, talking with our parents. They’re ignoring all of our evaluations, all of the parents that have been in the program, all of the students,” Acosta said. “They’re not going to source material, they’re going by hearsay.”

Nonetheless, Horne said he is considering making a determination on his last day in office — the day the law takes effect — that the program is out of compliance.

Huppenthal said any action the state takes will probably be under his watch and he is considering ways to accurately monitor the program. The State Board of Education, which the superintendent sits on, can also determine compliance.

If the district is found to have violated the law, it will have a chance to appeal the decision to the Office of Administrative Hearings. As attorney general, Horne would represent the state in those proceedings.

At stake is a penalty of 10 percent of the district’s monthly apportionment from the state until it reaches compliance. That means the district would lose between $30 million and $35 million per year.

“We will stand behind our ethnic studies classes,” said Judy Burns, president of the district’s governing board. “If we have to go to court, we will.”

The district is in the process of hiring a new superintendent, but all four finalists have expressed support for the program, Burns said.

The eleven teachers in the program have taken up the fight to save it by filing suit in U.S. District Court in Tucson to get the law thrown out. The teachers have created a website to advertise their cause and raise money. Local filmmakers are producing a video about their struggle.

Huppenthal has indicated that he is preparing for a long battle over the program.

Huppenthal said monitoring the classes wouldn’t be effective because the teachers would put on a “dog-and-pony show.” A more accurate assessment might come from interviewing students after they graduate, he said.

He also suggested a negotiation of sorts in which critics show the district how the program is not only out of compliance, but how it is historically inaccurate and teaches a value system rather than facts. For instance, he said the program ignores the principles of the “American Dream” that hard work leads to upward mobility while teaching students that a “Caucasian power structure” oppresses ethnic minorities.

“I think this is very unhealthy,” Huppenthal said.

In Brummer’s class on Nov. 1, there was a lot of discussion about race. She teaches the American Government Ethnic Studies Social Justice Education Project, which she says focuses on cultural identity and critical thinking.

Forty or more students were packed into the classroom and their lesson was to discuss a set of questions pertaining to race relations, redistribution of wealth and social reform.

Brummer selected individual students to lead the discussion of each question, one of which was: “If Indians discovered gold on the reservation or blacks did in the inner city, so that the average wealth and family income of Indians and blacks were exactly the same as that of whites, would racism abate or become more intense?”

The first student to raise her hand said racism would become even more overt because European-Americans have a superiority complex.

A second student agreed that racism would intensify because white people would be bitter for having to work for their riches while people of other races wouldn’t have to.

After the discussion, Roman Figueroa, a 17-year-old student who said he is fluent in six languages and wants to be a linguist in the CIA, said he believes the ethnic studies classes guide students to be progressive, to follow their dreams and to be positive in life.

“Every group that came here, we talk about their struggles,” he said. “My message to Tom Horne directly is we’re not race-obsessed at all.”

The program has existed since 1998, but it didn’t come to Horne’s attention until April 2006, when civil-rights icon Dolores Huerta said at a student assembly that “Republicans hate Latinos.”

Even Burns, the president of the district’s governing board, said she didn’t condone the speech because it was calling for political action.

“It wasn’t geared toward high school kids,” Burns said.

But, Burns said that the Huerta incident has been blown out of proportion.

And that wasn’t the only incident.

Horne followed up on Huerta’s speech by sending his top deputy, Margaret Garcia Dugan, to provide students with an opposing view. During Dugan’s speech, students raised their fists in the air and turned their backs on her before walking out.

While the debate rages over the educational value of the ethnic studies program, there is no doubting how the students feel about the classes.

The sentiments of students interviewed by the Arizona Capitol Times were similar. They found the classes more interesting than traditional literature and history classes and more challenging than advanced-placement classes.

Nadye Mendez, a cheerleader, said her sophomore history class focused on Europe and included only a passing mention of the Aztecs.

“They’ve given me a different mindset,” Mendez, 17, said. “I had no idea so much happened in my culture.”

Brummer said the program focuses on the Aztecs because they are indigenous to Mexico and their ancient philosophies are transferable across cultures.

Angelica Peñaran, a 17-year-old student, said the Mexican-American Studies program has inspired her toward a career path in either anthropology or the social sciences. But it’s having an effect on her even now.

At the beginning of class on Nov. 1, she urged her

18-year-old classmates to vote the next day and she told them how she went door-to-door the day before to urge her neighbors to cast a ballot.

“Because of these classes I’ve become very involved in politics,” Peñaran said.

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