Do Ethnic Studies Programs Help Minorities?

A law in Arizona allows the state to ban some ethnic studies classes.

March 13, 2013, 2:04 PM

March 13, 2013— -- A judge recently upheld most of an Arizona law that allows officials to essentially ban some ethnic studies courses in Tucson schools.

The law prohibits public and charter schools in the state from teaching courses that promote resentment toward a race or class of people, advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government or encourage ethnic solidarity over a sense of individual identity among students. Trustees of the Tucson Unified School District stopped their Mexican-American studies program in January of last year after officials decided it violated the law.

While U.S. Circuit Court Judge Wallace Tashima found most of the law valid and said it did not constitute discrimination, he ruled that one section prohibiting courses designed for specific ethnic groups was too vague and could have a chilling effect on the teaching of "legitimate and objective ethnic studies courses."

He also cautioned that the discussion surrounding the law might leave some suspicious that Latinos had been unfairly targeted. Tashima pointed out in his ruling that Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne, the author of the law, chose to enforce the provision only against the Mexican-American studies program in the Tucson Unified School District and left alone other ethnic studies programs.

The ruling allows the state to penalize school districts that offer courses the state government deems too radical. In response, the Arizona Republic released a scathing editorial on Tuesday blaming the Mexican-American studies program for helping the state to control the content of the school district's curriculum through this legal challenge. It called the situation "a serious blow to local control."

"The zealots who turned classrooms at the Tucson Unified School District into political-indoctrination centers have left a lot of wreckage in their wake," it said. "The Mexican-American studies activists at TUSD stole precious education time from the students in their charge. They sorely damaged the image of the fast-shrinking, urban school district that, at times, they seemed to have commandeered. They transformed district board meetings into chaotic circuses."

But advocates of ethnic studies programs argue the classes address parts of U.S. history that are typically ignored and say they encourage Latino students to do well in school. They have said that they will continue to fight for the program.

Richard Martinez, the attorney for the case, said it was "not the ruling we were hoping for."

He said the lawyers working on the case are leaning toward an appeal to the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. That process could take several years.

Horne has argued that the law will help ensure students are treated as individuals and not on the basis of their ethnicity. He said the Mexican-American studies program in the Tucson school system caused resentment and inhibited the treatment of people as individuals.

"This is a victory for ensuring that public education is not held captive to radical, political elements," Horne said in a statement after the ruling, "and that students treat each other as individuals--not on the basis of the race they were born into."

But according to David Scott, director of Accountability and Research for the Tucson school district, the program was in many ways a good one.

"You probably could legitimately say that there is evidence there that the program did have a positive impact on the students who took it," he said.

Scott added, however, that many assumptions enter into these evaluations and the variables involved make it hard to judge how accurate they are.

Most of the students took the courses at a large magnet high school in Tucson that incorporated Mexican-American texts into American history and government courses, as well as English courses. Many of the Hispanic students at the school live in the surrounding low-income neighborhood, but the school also draws a diverse population of students from across Tucson that apply to attend. The diverse, high-achieving environment may have helped the minority, low-income students perform better than their peers at other schools, according to Scott. Any study of students enrolled in the Mexican-American studies program would have to take that bias into account.

In addition, the Mexican-American focus was implemented in junior- and senior-level courses. By the time a student made it that far, there was less chance, regardless of which courses they took, that they would drop out.

Scott also pointed out that the courses affected a very small number of students--just several hundred per year in a district that serves more than 50,000.

Richard Fry, a senior research associate with the Pew Hispanic Center, acknowledged that the issue is complex. He said, as far as he knows, there is no comprehensive survey that accounts for other influencing factors when looking at whether minority students enrolled in ethnic studies outperform other minorities.

According to Scott, there was little opposition to the Mexican-American studies courses in Tucson before Horne got involved, because there was little knowledge of them at all. He thinks it was a political issue that Horne pursued to help get himself elected attorney general. It was a case of Horne "using issues to get himself elected," Scott said.

Horne did not return a request for comment.

In any case, Scott says, the controversy around the courses is a distraction from what really matters: engaging kids in the learning process. The teachers who taught the Mexican-American studies courses were passionate, they selected engaging material for students to read and they encouraged students to relate to and think about the material instead of simply memorizing it for a test, said Scott. The courses didn't necessarily have to be Mexican-American studies--he adds that students who engaged in sports showed similar improvements--but those courses were nonetheless valuable.

"Regardless of what your community is, what the population looks like, it's up to the school district, because that's our job, to find those engaging things and support them with the budget," Scott said. "Because that's our job."