Funding cuts threatened for Arizona school district over ethnic studies program

The Tucson Unified School District has run afoul of a new Arizona state law that bans public schools from offering courses that are designed for a particular ethnic group, according to the state’s outgoing superintendent of public instruction.

Just before leaving office to become Arizona’s attorney general, Tom Horne had a parting shot for Tucson school leaders: get rid of a Mexican American Studies program or risk losing $15 million in state funding.

The basis for Horne’s threat is A.R.S. § 15-112, which took effect on December 31. It prohibits a school district or charter school from including in its program any courses that are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.

According to a statement issued by Horne, Tucson Unified School District has four courses under the heading of Ethnic Studies. “Three of the four programs could be found in violation under (the criterion),” his statement alleges. However, the statement continues that all of the complaints his office received involved a single program known as Mexican American Studies. He gave district officials 60 days to eliminate the program.

Horne defended his position, saying, “People are individuals, not exemplars of racial groups. What is important about people is what they know, what they can do, their ability to appreciate beauty, their character, and not what race into which they are born. They are entitled to be treated that way. It is fundamentally wrong to divide students up according to their racial group, and teach them separately.”

The decision whether to follow through with the sanctions will ultimately be up to Horne’s successor, John Huppenthal, who reportedly has not said where he stands on the issue.

A day before the new law took effect, the Tucson Unified School Board met to pass its third resolution, restating its belief that the ethnic studies programs increase student achievement and stating it was in compliance with the law.

The Website for the Mexican American Studies Department says the program is "dedicated to the empowerment and strengthening of our community of learners." It says students will attain an understanding and appreciation of historic and contemporary Mexican American contributions and that students will “be prepared for dynamic, confident leadership in the 21st Century.”

In October, 10 teachers and the director of the 12-year old Mexican American Studies program filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the ban.  That lawsuit, which is unresolved, claims the Mexican-American Studies Department is open to all students, regardless of race or national origin.