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2012-04-13

Arizona Teacher Sean Arce Fired in Latest Crackdown on Acclaimed Mexican American Studies Program

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Sean Arce, the head of the Tucson school district’s banned Mexican American Studies program, was dismissed Tuesday night amid vocal protests from dozens of supporters. Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program has been under attack following the passage of a bill which prohibits schools from offering ethnic studies courses. Arce maintains he was fired because he spoke out against what he saw as a discriminatory law targeting Mexican Americans and Latinos. "I, along with many others, stood up and [saw] this law as unconstitutional," Arce says. "And because we stood up, the district has retaliated." [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We end today’s show with two teachers who have lost their jobs, one in Michigan and the other in Arizona. We go first to Michigan, where an eighth grade charter school teacher has been fired after helping her students organize a fundraiser for Trayvon Martin’s parents. Brooke Harris and her students at Pontiac Academy for Excellence drew up a plan to raise money by donating $1 each to wear a hoodie to school, as Martin had worn when he was shot dead. She obtained permission for the fundraiser, but her superintendent opposed the plan. Harris was initially suspended and then later fired outright after visiting an after-school literacy fair to support her students.

Harris’s dismissal has received national attention. The Southern Poverty Law Center has taken up the fight for her reinstatement. The nonprofit Teaching Tolerance program started out a petition at Change.org on Harris’s behalf, which has well over 150,000 signatures. Her supporters are planning a rally outside the school next Monday if the superintendent doesn’t hire her back by today. About 200 people attended a similar rally Tuesday.

Reverend Charles Williams of King Solomon Baptist Church has called for Harris to be immediately reinstated.

REV. CHARLES WILLIAMS: We are calling, unequivocally, on the principal and other board members of the Pontiac Academy to rehire her and to reinstate her immediately.

AMY GOODMAN: We are going to—that was [Rev. Charles Williams]. We are—we are going now to Tucson, Arizona. Tucson, Arizona is a place where another teacher has been fired. By the way, Brooke Harris has not taken legal action at this point.

In Arizona, we’re going to the head of the Tucson school district’s embattled, acclaimed Mexican American Studies program who has been fired from his job. Sean Arce was dismissed at the school district members’ board meeting Tuesday night amidst vocal protest from dozens of supporters. Earlier this month, Arce was awarded the 2012 Myles Horton Education Award for Teaching People’s History from the [Zinn Education Project]. Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program has been under attack following the passage of a bill which prohibits schools from offering ethnic studies courses. Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal ruled the Mexican American Studies program violated the new state law.

JOHN HUPPENTHAL: In our determination, we found that these classes were promoting ethnic resentment. They were promoting ethnic solidarity in ways that are really intolerable in an educational environment.

AMY GOODMAN: Under the ruling, the district would have lost up to $14 million in funding this fiscal year had it allowed the program to carry on.

School officials released a list of seven banned books that can no longer be used in classrooms after the suspension of the program. Officials told teachers to stay away from any books where, quote, "race, ethnicity and oppression are central themes." The banned books include Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years, Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, and Chicano!: The History of the Mexican Civil Rights MovementThe Mexican American Civil Rights Movement.

Speaking to Democracy Now! earlier this year, Superintendent Huppenthal denied that any books had been banned.

JOHN HUPPENTHAL: In no way, shape or form are we banning any kind of books or any kind of viewpoint from the classroom. But we are saying that if all you’re teaching these students is one viewpoint, one dimension, we can readily see that it’s not an accurate history, it’s not an education at all. It’s not teaching these kids to think critically, but instead it’s an indoctrination.

AMY GOODMAN: To discuss the controversy Arizona, we go to Tucson to speak to Sean Arce, dismissed on Tuesday night. He was the head of Tucson school district’s Mexican American Studies program.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Sean. Talk about what happened this week and what’s happened to the program and what’s happening to you.

SEAN ARCE: Thank you for having me.

Yes, this law, HB 2281, coming from our state legislature, put a lot of political pressure on our local school district. And unfortunately, our school district, Tucson Unified, under the leadership of John Pedicone, cowered to this racist legislation and essentially eliminated a very effective course of instruction, a course of instruction wherein Latino students became highly engaged, had higher graduation rates, and had a closing of the achievement gap, something that urban school districts throughout the country are seeking aggressively in ways in which to close the achievement gap for Latino students.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Sean Arce, it’s bad enough that they’ve decided to end the program, but what excuse did they use for telling you you no longer have a job starting in September?

SEAN ARCE: The thinly veiled attempt to explain my release from the district is that they were going in a different direction, but when in fact we know this was an act of retaliation, in that I, along with many others, stood up and see this law as unconstitutional. This law is discriminatory. It really focuses on a disparate treatment, points out one group of students, which being Mexican American, Latino. And because we stood up, the district has retaliated.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what’s been the response in the Tucson community to both the abolition of the program and then now to your firing?

SEAN ARCE: The response has been overwhelming in favor of actually restoring Mexican American Studies. Mexican-American and Latino students within TUSD have experienced for years a disparate and discriminatory treatment. Currently, Tucson Unified School District, under the current leadership of John Pedicone, has been put back under a 30-plus-year desegregation plan, desegregation suit, because the district has not acted in good faith with the Mexican-American and Latino community. So, something that was very organic, something that the community demanded to be—for the district to be responsive to the academic, the social needs of our students, our community created this Mexican American Studies program. And now the district, again, in currying to the racists and being accomplices to that racism, particularly John Pedicone, has—in essence, has abolished a very effective, a very engaging—something that was very cherished, a program, an effective educational model for Latino students.

AMY GOODMAN: Sean Arce, I wanted to ask you about another issue going on in Arizona, a headline we read yesterday: two people trying to cross into the United States from Mexico having been killed in an apparent attack by an armed militia. According to Pima County Sheriff’s Department, the victims were killed when a pickup truck carrying up to 30 undocumented immigrants near the Arizona town of Eloy was ambushed by "subjects in camouflage clothing armed with rifles," the attack coming as Arizona lawmakers are considering a measure that would create a state-backed armed militia to work with Border Patrol agents along the U.S.-Mexico border to capture undocumented immigrants. Do you know anything about this?

SEAN ARCE: Yes, unfortunately, I did hear of this occurrence. And this is very telling of the anti-Mexican, anti-immigrant sentiment here in the state of Arizona. It is very pervasive, and, unfortunately, it has seeped into our public institutions, particularly our public schools, wherein Mexican-American and Latino students are actually dehumanized. So this is this—our instance of the elimination of an effective educational program is really a reflection and is something within the context of this greater anti-Mexican, anti-Latino sentiment within the state of Arizona. And unfortunately, our school district is actually perpetuating such a sentiment within our schools.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Sean Arce, we want to thank you very much for being with us.

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