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LA School Teacher Fired for Being Too “Afrocentric”; Arizona Bill Proposes to Prohibit Teachings Critical of Western Civilization

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We look at two cases of free speech in the classroom: Karen Salazar speaks out about her dismissal from the Los Angeles School District; historian Rodolfo Acuna discusses the Arizona bill that would ban schools from using some books, including Acuna’s Occupied America: A History of Chicanos. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to two stories about the state of public education in this country.

Protests in support of dismissed Los Angeles School District high school teacher Karen Salazar have increased this week. She is a second-year English teacher at Jordan High School in Watts. Last month, she was told her contract would not be renewed, because she was “presenting a biased view of the curriculum” and “indoctrinating her students with Afrocentrism.” Her course material included board-approved texts like the writings of Malcolm X and Langston Hughes.

Last week, a student took issue with the negative characterization of Salazar’s teaching.

    STUDENT: She encourages her students to continue on. She gives them the push. She doesn’t give up on her students. She says, “OK, you’re struggling in my class. I will take time off. I will help you after school.” Most teachers don’t even do that. And the fact that she’s teaching us about our culture and things that are relevant to us, that’s what they’re afraid of. They’re scared of a teacher who does that, because that involves critical thinking. They don’t like students who question or to think critically. They just want students to absorb everything and then to regurgitate back to them.

AMY GOODMAN: Jordan High School officials refused to comment when we contacted them and said the issue was an internal matter relating to personnel.

But the case of Karen Salazar is not unique. In 2006, Jay Bennish, a high school teacher from Aurora, Colorado, was briefly dismissed because one of his lectures was deemed “anti-American.” On the eve of the Iraq war in 2003, Deborah Mayer, an Indiana schoolteacher, was fired after telling her class, “I honk for peace.” A federal appeals court in Chicago upheld the school’s decision last year and ruled public school teachers do not have the constitutional right to express personal opinions in the classroom.

We turn now to another story that could have a chilling effect on education in Arizona public schools. A legislative panel in Arizona endorsed a proposal in April that would cut state funding for public schools whose courses “denigrate American values and the teachings of Western civilization.” The measure would also prohibit students of state-funded universities and community colleges from forming groups based in whole or in part on the race of their members.

Critics say the bill would essentially destroy the state’s Mexican American or Chicano studies programs, as well as student groups such as the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan, or MEChA.

We’re joined now by two guests. Professor Rodolfo Acuna is a Professor Emeritus at California State University, Northridge, where he started the largest Chicano Studies program in the country. He’s been a social activist for more than half a century, author of twenty-one books, including Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, one of the many that would no longer be taught in Arizona public schools if the controversial bill passes. Professor Acuna joins us on the telephone. We’re also joined from Los Angeles by the dismissed high school teacher Karen Salazar.

We welcome you both. Karen Salazar, tell us the latest.

KAREN SALAZAR: Hi. I guess the latest, as you said, yes, my contract has been denied for renewal, so effective June 30th, I will be out of a contract from LAUSD.

The latest would be that about three to four weeks ago, I received my official evaluation from the school, and it was actually a satisfactory evaluation. It was a positive evaluation. Unfortunately, they never gave me a copy of that evaluation, even though I signed it. So after, you know, pressing the administration to give me a copy of that evaluation for weeks, and I had the union press them, as well, this week I was given an evaluation. Unfortunately, it was not the evaluation that I signed. It was not the evaluation that I signed. It was actually a different evaluation, a completely different form. My evaluative marks of satisfactory had now been turned into unsatisfactory.

AMY GOODMAN: And their major beef with you?

KAREN SALAZAR: The major beef — originally, they told me that the reason for not renewing my contract was that I was presenting a biased view of the curriculum. They later told district officials that I was indoctrinating students with Afrocentrism. Later, they said that it was due to an over-teached position, too many English teachers at my school. Now, the latest is they’re saying that I’m not teaching state standards.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me turn to Professor Rodolfo Acuna, Professor Emeritus, Chicano Studies, California State University, Northridge. Can you talk about what is happening in Arizona and relate it to Karen Salazar’s case?

RODOLFO ACUNA: Well, it’s something that’s been happening in California for some time. It’s a combination of people telling lies about groups like MEChA, the Chicano student group, and also your xenophobia. And they’re trying to — right now they’re trying to ban MEChA from the schools, and they’re also trying to ban books, mine being among them, from the schools.

AMY GOODMAN: How are they trying to ban your book?

RODOLFO ACUNA: They just say that it can’t be used in the public schools.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what your book talks about, what you put forward in your book.

RODOLFO ACUNA: It’s a standard history of Chicanos in the United States. It’s no more, no less. And it — one of the controversial places is that I say that the United States invaded Mexico. These people want to rewrite history. They want to build their walls, and they want to say what they say, and they want everybody else to say what they want them to say.

AMY GOODMAN: And who is behind the Arizona proposal?


AMY GOODMAN: Who is behind the Arizona proposal?

RODOLFO ACUNA: Well, you have various groups. And Arizona is not unique in this. Remember that at Stanford in 2003, you had MEChA funds be withheld from them by the student government, and you have an awful lot of xenophobia at that school.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Acuna, explain what MEChA is.


AMY GOODMAN: Explain what MEChA is.

RODOLFO ACUNA: MEChA is a student group. It was founded in the late 1960s. Right now, it’s a group of very young students who are very idealistic, who recruit other Chicanos to come to school, who usually participate in antiwar demonstrations, who stand for something. They’re a minority on campuses. They’re not exclusive to Chicano students. You cannot be exclusive to any group if you are chartered by an AS group, Associated Student group.

AMY GOODMAN: Karen Salazar, can you talk about the charge that your teachings were too Afrocentric? Talk about what you taught.

KAREN SALAZAR: Sure. There was actually one lesson in particular that’s been extremely controversial. I used a three-page excerpt from The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which is an LAUSD-approved text. It’s widely used around the country, in other countries, as well. I used a three-page excerpt, standards-based. They never denied that it was standards-based. But the administrator who observed my class —-

AMY GOODMAN: When you say “standards-based” and “LAUSD,” Los Angeles United School District, but LA “standards-based”?

KAREN SALAZAR: Standards-based for the California Content Standards for English Language Arts.

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.

KAREN SALAZAR: So it was a standards-based lesson. The administrator who came and observed my class later wrote in an evaluation -— this is a written evaluation that goes into my file — that I was brainwashing students and imposing extremist views on them, based on this lesson. So that’s one of the controversial lessons, I guess, that I am being accused of indoctrinating students with Afrocentrism with.

I did have a mentor teacher observe the same exact lesson that same day, just coincidentally, because she is my mentor teacher. She comes in periodically to observe my lesson. And she took away something completely different from that lesson than what the administrator did.

AMY GOODMAN: How many times were you evaluated compared to other teachers?

KAREN SALAZAR: Well, this year alone, I’ve been evaluated at least fifteen times. Comparatively, the average evaluations for teachers is between one and three times, so, you know, it’s substantially more.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have any recourse to reverse your dismissal?

KAREN SALAZAR: At this point, we are working — students are organizing with the union. We’re working with the Association of Raza Educators. We’re working to pressure the district to review this decision both at the school board level and district official level.

AMY GOODMAN: Today is graduation?

KAREN SALAZAR: Today is graduation, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Will you be there?


AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. Karen Salazar, we’ll follow your case, dismissed teacher from Jordan High School. And Professor Rodolfo Acuna, Professor Emeritus of Chicano Studies at California State University at Northridge.

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