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Arizona's Ethnic Studies Ban In Public Schools Goes To Trial


In 2010, the same year that Arizona passed the nation's toughest law on illegal immigration, Governor Jan Brewer signed another bill - HB 2281. It restricts public school districts from offering ethnic studies classes. I'm just going to read some of the language in the law. It prohibits programs in schools that, quote, "promote resentment toward a race or class of people" or, quote, "advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals."

The law was specifically written in reaction to a Mexican-American studies program that had been taught in Tucson public schools since the 1990s. It has been in the courts a couple of times in the last seven years, and it's back in federal court this summer. The final week of the trial begins in Tucson on Monday.

Roque Planas of the HuffPost has been covering the trial and the law for years, and he is with us now. Welcome.

ROQUE PLANAS: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

MCEVERS: OK, so let's just back up a bit. And tell us more about this law and how it came to be.

PLANAS: This law is a reaction from some Arizona Republican officials who were upset at what they viewed as Mexican-American studies instructors breeding resentment against whites. The controversy started in the year 2007 when civil rights leader Dolores Huerta visited a Tucson school, at which she famously said that Republicans hate Hispanics.

This infuriated then Superintendent Public Instruction Tom Horne, who sent his deputy, Margaret Dugan, who is herself Hispanic Republican, to offer a counter-speech. When she did that, some students were upset because they weren't allowed to ask questions. And so they stood up in the crowd and put tape across their mouths in protest. This angered Tom Horne even further, and that led to him starting this campaign to restrict the teaching of ethnic studies specifically to shut down this Tucson program.

MCEVERS: And so why is it in court now? Why is the law in court now?

PLANAS: Basically teachers and students sued to overturn this law, arguing that it's unconstitutional. Basically their argument is that this is a program that had been very effective in addressing the achievement gap. They point out that those who took it - these were all elective classes. And those who took them scored higher on state tests and had a higher rate of graduating high school. So they're basically saying that Arizona Republicans were motivated by sort of racial discrimination when they conceived of this law and as they implemented it.

MCEVERS: So we've already been through a week of the trial. That was a few weeks ago. And then there was a break before the final week begins on Monday. What happened during that first week of the trial?

PLANAS: The first week was largely about John Huppenthal, the former head of public instruction, who was on the witness stand for three days, explaining his rationale for helping to pass and then implement this law. Huppenthal had been known in the past for making some very racially charged remarks in anonymous blog comments that he was later outed for. He apologized at the time. But on the witness stand, he actually reaffirmed things like saying that Spanish language media should be banned from the United States with a limited exception of Mexican restaurant menus.


PLANAS: It was not expected in a trial about alleged racial discrimination to hear him make some of those comments.

MCEVERS: Yeah. What impact do you think this case could have beyond Arizona?

PLANAS: This particular Arizona law was viewed by many Hispanic intellectuals as such an attack against the Mexican-American intellectual and cultural contributions to this country. And what's ended up happening - the results of Tom Horne and John Huppenthal's actions over these last few years has been to spread ethnic studies across the United States. Now you have the state of California implementing it in several districts and creating a model program that all districts can use. And you have people in Texas starting these programs at different schools. I think the end result has been, counterintuitively, to publicize the work that the teachers were doing.

MCEVERS: Roque Planas of HuffPost, thank you so much.

PLANAS: My pleasure. Thank you.


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