Do Ethnic Studies Programs Help Minorities?

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

ByABC News
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.