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Tucson Orders Closure of Mexican-American School Program as Ethnic Studies Faces Nationwide Threat

StoryDecember 29, 2011
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An Arizona administrator has ruled that the public school district in Tucson must end its acclaimed Mexican American Studies program for grades K-12, saying it violates a new state law that bans the teaching of any class designed for a particular ethnic group or that “promote[s] resentment toward a race or class of people.” But the program’s supporters say the classes push the district’s largely Latino student body to excel academically while teaching them long-neglected perspectives. We speak to Tucson Mexican-American history teacher Lorenzo Lopez and his daughter, Korina, a high school sophomore. Both are plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit to stop the ban from taking effect. We’re also joined by Dr. Rodolfo Acuña, author of “Occupied America: A History of Chicanos,” considered the definitive introduction to Chicano history in the United States. Dr. Acuña warns copycat laws are likely to follow in other states as part of a growing campaign against ethnic studies programs, in particular Chicano studies, throughout the country. [includes rush transcript]

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

JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to Arizona, the home of a growing debate over the future of ethnic studies classes in the public school system. Last year, Arizona passed a controversial law banning the teaching of any class designed for a particular ethnic group or that, quote, “promote[s] resentment toward a race or class of people.”

School officials in Tucson defied the ban and continued offering a popular Mexican American Studies program. But on Tuesday, a judge ruled Tucson must end its acclaimed program, saying it violates the state ban. Judge Lewis Kowal wrote, quote, “Teaching in such a manner promotes social or political activism against the white people, promotes racial resentment, and advocates ethnic solidarity, instead of treating pupils as individuals.”

Just before the law targeting the program went into effect earlier this year, high school students shut down a Tucson school board meeting considering a plan to cancel the courses.

PROTESTERS: Our education is under attack! What do we do? Fight back! Our education is under attack! What do we do? Fight back! Our education is under attack! What do we do? Fight back! Our education is under attack! What do we do? Fight back! Our education is under attack! What do we do? Fight back!

JUAN GONZALEZ: But as of Tuesday, Arizona’s superintendent of schools has ordered Tucson to cancel the popular Mexican American Studies program or face the loss of 10 percent of its district’s state aid, about $15 million a year. The ruling affirms a prior decision by the state superintendent of public instruction, John Huppenthal.

JOHN HUPPENTHAL: 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. Also think that this entire controversy was really a distraction that should have been handled at the local level, and the fact that it came to the state level is a symptom of more dramatic problems in the Tucson Unified School District.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Meanwhile, the program’s supporters say the classes push the district’s largely Latino student body to excel and teach long-neglected perspectives on Chicano history, literature and social justice. They’ve filed a federal lawsuit to stop the ban from going into effect. If the judge dismisses the case, Tucson’s accredited courses in Mexican-American studies for students in grades K through 12 will no longer be offered for the first time in almost a decade.

AMY GOODMAN: For more on this, we’re going to Tucson. We’re joined by Lorenzo Lopez, a Mexican American Studies high school teacher in the Tucson school district. We’re also joined by his daughter, Korina, a sophomore in high school. Both are plaintiffs in the lawsuit to save the program.

And in Los Angeles, we’re joined by a man many consider the the father of Chicano studies, Dr. Rodolfo Acuña, the founding chair of Chicano Studies at California State University in Northridge, the largest such department in the United States with 30 tenured professors. Among his best-known books is Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, considered the definitive introduction to Chicano history.

Let’s go first to Tucson. Let’s turn to Lorenzo Lopez, with his daughter, who is a Mexican American Studies teacher, Korina a student, sophomore. Talk about why you brought this lawsuit.

LORENZO LOPEZ: Well, we felt strongly that preserving the opportunity for our students to take a culturally relevant curriculum was important. It had a life-changing experience for myself. And we felt, as teachers, that it was important to preserve that opportunity for our students.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what about this argument of the school—of the superintendent of schools and of the court that this is a divisive and teaching antagonism toward white Americans?

LORENZO LOPEZ: Well, the approach—the pedagogy that we employ is critical pedagogy, so we take an honest look at events that have taken place in the history of this country. And it’s not sugar-coated. So, in many—many people would say, “Oh, this curriculum should be reserved for the college level.” But we disagree. We disagree. We feel that—we disagree with the assertion that it creates resentment. It provides a more complete look at the historical events that we cover and the historical contributions of Mexican Americans in this American fabric.

AMY GOODMAN: Korina, why is this class, the Mexican-American history class that you’re taking as a sophomore, important to you?

KORINA LOPEZ: Well, it’s very important to me because I know that it teaches a deeper understanding of history and the things you learn, and it just gives you a whole new appreciation of your community and society.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Lorenzo Lopez, I’d like to ask you, could you tell us what portion of the Tucson schools, public school system, is Chicano or Latino? And what has been the reaction in the general community to this effort by the state to do away with Mexican-American studies?

LORENZO LOPEZ: The majority of the school district, the demographics of the school district are mostly Latino. I believe they’re around 60 percent Latino. Most of the sites that we’re located in, that we teach classes in, are also a minority majority, highly Latino populations. So, one of the claims that was made was that, well, these classes are reserved specifically and only to Latino, Chicano students. And that’s completely false. I mean, a simple look at the rosters will dispel that myth.

The community, to a large extent, has been very supportive—of course, not entirely. There have been some critics locally. However, because of the efforts of a very active segment of our community, students included, as you displayed in the video earlier, we’ve been successful at retaining this opportunity for our students and future students.

AMY GOODMAN: In March, a Tucson Unified School District audit found its Mexican American Studies program gives students a measurable advantage over their peers. The audit was conducted by David Scott, the district’s director of accountability and research. In it, he wrote, quote, “Juniors taking a Mexican American Studies course are more likely than their peers to pass the [state’s standardized] reading and writing … test if they had previously failed those tests in their sophomore year,” and that “Seniors taking a Mexican American Studies course are more likely to persist to graduation than their peers.” Can you explain that, Lorenzo?

LORENZO LOPEZ: Sure. Over the past few years, data has been collected from the students taking this class. They have been compared to their colleagues, to their cohorts, their graduating cohort. And this data has basically proven the effectiveness of these courses and of this program. If not for this data, I believe we would have been eliminated long ago. But the highly effective nature of this pedagogy and of this curriculum has allowed us to continue on and has honestly garnered much support in our community. It’s very difficult to argue with a highly successful curriculum and program that improves academic skills and standing for this highly marginalized segment of our community.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, we’re also joined from Los Angeles by the man considered the father of Chicano studies, Dr. Rodolfo Acuña. Dr. Acuña, could you place what’s happening in Tucson in a national perspective? What does it mean in terms of multicultural studies in the United States and the general assault on the Latino community by some sectors of the political establishment?

DR. RODOLFO ACUÑA: Well, first of all, you know, the decision in Arizona was not made by a judge. It was made by a commissioner, commissioner that’s appointed by the governor and the attorney general and is an appointee, is not an elected office. So he’s not a judge. The ruling is a state ruling; it’s not a federal ruling. However, with that said, ethnic studies programs and Chicano studies programs throughout the country are under attack, but in a more subtle way in other states. They are under attack through the budget. They’re just eliminating many of the programs. Our program is, to use a very bad phrase, is too large to fail at our particular university. Right now, the ruling is not really a danger in such. The danger is that there’s going to be an awful lot of copycat laws passed in other states. That means that we’re going to have to expend an awful lot of money defending ethnic studies at the university level.

AMY GOODMAN: Your book, Occupied America, is considered the definitive introduction to Chicano history, Occupied America: A History of Chicanos. The accusations against ethnic studies and Mexican-American studies, why it should be closed down, the quotes we just read, it engenders racial hatred, hostility, resentment towards whites—can you respond to this, Dr. Acuña?

DR. RODOLFO ACUÑA: Well, the state of Arizona, the superintendent of the schools commissioned a study, the Cambium study, that they paid $177,000 for, and it came back with the conclusion that it did not engender hatred, that it didn’t engender separation, it did not engender racism. So, consequently, you have experts, experts that were paid by the state of Arizona, that contradict the conclusions that have been made by the findings of the court.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in terms of the—of Tucson having these programs in the public schools, in the high schools, as opposed to your programs are in the colleges, how many public school systems around the country have similar programs and could be affected if this movement in Arizona spreads?

DR. RODOLFO ACUÑA: I know of none. However, remember that the program in Tucson is the result of a suit. And they found that the school district was segregating Mexican-American students and that the school district was not complying with a 1970 order to desegregate their schools. So this was supposed to be part of the solution. It is still subject to federal supervision, the federal court supervision. However, the federal court has been derelict, and it has not enforced its own laws.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Acuña, why did you call your book Occupied America?

DR. RODOLFO ACUÑA: I called it Occupied America because it didn’t even refer to the United States. I say that when the Spaniards came and the Europeans came to the Americas, this was an occupation of the Americas. It was also the destruction of many cultures. Remember, the Mayan culture, the Aztec culture and many of the cultures were destroyed at that particular time, and there was an occupation. At that particular point, they lost the power of self-determination.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And also, your program at Cal State Northridge, the largest Chicano studies program in the country, how has it been able to flourish and develop such a national reputation?

DR. RODOLFO ACUÑA: Partly because we have a very good support from the students, we have very good support from the community, and you have some of the professors there that have supported us and some of the administrators that have supported us. Right now, we carry 166 sections of Chicano studies, and we have over 6,000 students a semester. But you have to remember, Chicano studies is a pedagogy. It is there to motivate students. You know, we’ve graduated more students that have gone through our classes of Mexican extraction and Latino extraction that have become doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers than the University of Arizona during the same time period. It motivates students. And the purpose of Chicano studies is to motivate students to want to learn.

AMY GOODMAN: And the content—we just have less than a minute, Dr. Acuña—of what you would describe as Mexican-American studies, as ethnic studies, and why you feel it’s important?

DR. RODOLFO ACUÑA: It’s an area studies, and you look at the information on Mexican Americans, Mexicans in the United States, through an interdisciplinary method. We have courses in literature, history, the arts, the humanities, education, and it is a multidisciplinary approach to learning.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Dr. Rodolfo Acuña, founding chair of Chicano Studies at California State University, Northridge, the largest such department in the United States, with 30 tenured professors, 6,000 students. Among his best-known books, Occupied America: A History of Chicanos. That does it for our show. Thank you so much to Lorenzo Lopez, a Mexican American Studies teacher, and his daughter Korina, high school sophomore, enrolled in the Mexican-American history program in Tucson that’s threatened with ending. And we’ll continue to follow it.

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