Arizona Judge Rules Against Controversial Ban on Ethnic Studies

The future of a controversial Mexican-American studies program is now in the hands of the Tucson, Ariz, school board after a judge ruled state officials can no longer enforce a ban against it.

The ban was imposed by a 2010 state law passed that prohibited courses that “promote the overthrow of the United States government; promote resentment toward a race or class of people; are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group; advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”

In reality, the law was a reaction to a Mexican-American studies program at Tucson Unified School District that started in 1998 and focused on Mexican-American contributions and history. Then–State Superintendent Tom Horne objected to comments made by a speaker in a Mexican-American studies classroom there, sparking a years-long legal battle over the courses.

It’s not clear whether Tucson schools will restart the controversial program, which the local school board cut in 2012 after the state threatened to withhold a portion of the district’s funding, The Washington Post reported.

After previously upholding parts of the ban, Federal Judge A. Wallace Tashima ruled the state law prohibiting the classes unconstitutional in August 2017, and in late December he issued an injunction that permanently blocks state officials from enforcing it.

Tashima found in August that the law was based on racial animus and was enacted for political reasons. Then–State Senator John Huppenthal, who supported the bill and previously served as state superintendent of public instruction, posted racist comments online shortly after the bill was passed, which the judge said was evidence that the legislation was racially and politically motivated. The judge also wrote that the Tucson program was beneficial for students.

The latest ruling prohibits state officials from enforcing the law, which means they cannot audit districts specifically for compliance with the rule or withhold money from schools that have such classes. State officials may ask for the injunction to be dissolved in seven years.

A study of the Tucson program found that participating students were more likely to graduate from high school and showed higher passing rates on standardized tests after taking the course.

Supporters of Mexican-American studies say the courses are more engaging and relevant to some traditionally marginalized students, factors that can help boost achievement.

The seven-year fight over the Tucson program sparked a national conversation about how high school classes cover communities of color, with districts including Los Angeles and Bridgeport, Connecticut, adding ethnic studies courses as graduation requirements for all students.

Arizona’s current superintendent, Diane Douglas, criticized the ruling. Douglas said in a statement that she will seek a legislative fix for the ruling. “The provisions that prevent tax payer dollars being used for classes that promote the overthrow of the United States Government or promote resentment towards a race or class of people, just sound like common sense to me. Those should stay,” she said.

State Representative Sally Ann Gonzales, a Tucson Democrat, supports the ruling.

“It is important for Arizona to teach the history of minority communities of the past and present day,” she said in a statement.

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