Tucson, Arizona: Ethnic studies elicits “cult” charges

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Over the summer, the ongoing battle over ethnic studies in Arizona royally exposed the grimy politics and tactics of the right wing.

Arizona HB 2281 became effective Jan. 1, aimed at the popular and successful Mexican American studies program (also known as MAS or La Raza studies) of the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD). The bill outlaws courses that “promote the overthrow” of the government, “promote resentment toward a race or class of people,” are “designed primarily for people of a particular ethnic group, or “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of treatment of pupils as individuals.”

The bill’s author was Tom Horne, who is famously opposed to La Raza education because it is critical of the U.S. government’s relationship with Latin America and treatment of Latinos. As the state superintendent of schools, Horne conveniently was able to find the Tucson ethnic studies program in violation of the new law immediately before leaving that position to become the state’s attorney general.

Tucson teachers and students filed an appeal of his decision. In June, a state-commissioned audit found the MAS program actually in compliance with the new law. But the current state schools superintendent, Tea Partier John Huppenthal — who ordered the study — rejected this conclusion out of hand. He is threatening to withhold $15 million in funding from the school district.

During an August 2011 hearing, the TUSD board president testified that after visiting two La Raza classes, he “had an epiphany” that the students’ rhythmic clapping at the start of class, so familiar to Chicano/a movement supporters, was “cult-like.”

As the school year begins, the MAS program is still in place — although school administrators have taken steps to sabotage enrollment. They barred teachers from contacting students and parents about available La Raza classes and course changes and told school counselors to advise students against the classes.

The new supervisor of the MAS program, appointed by the TUSD superintendent, has reassigned La Raza teachers to other courses, reduced their course offerings, and accused the Chicano/a student group MEChA in Tucson of being unpatriotic and anti-Semitic.

Before summer break, students, teachers and supporters were energetically engaged in civil disobedience and other protest. They are determined to save La Raza studies and its high standards for public schools. The stage is set for an educational and confrontational school year!

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