Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) signed a controversial law this week targeting ethnic studies classes in public schools. In the wake of international reaction to the state’s illegal-immigration law, Arizona is once again roiling the Latino community and stirring up issues of racial identity, national pride, and respect.
The new law threatens to withhold 10 percent of state funding from any school district or charter school that offers classes that are designed for one particular group, “advocate ethnic solidarity,” “promote resentment of a race or class of people,” or “promote the overthrow of the United States government.”
Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction Tom Horne sees the law as a victory in a two-year quest against classes in Tucson schools that he believes cause Latino students to resent whites. The law “is consistent with the fundamental American value that we are all individuals, not exemplars of whatever ethnic groups we were born into,” he noted in a statement last month when legislators passed the law. “Ethnic studies programs teach the opposite, and are designed to promote ethnic chauvinism.”
The classes are open to all students and include non-Hispanics, she says. The Tucson district is 56 percent Hispanic. “If kids come together and they feel some sense of brotherhood from sharing a class and studying about history and possibly previous oppression, well, that’s a byproduct of the course; we’re not teaching solidarity.”
In an open letter to the Tucson community in 2007, Mr. Horne cited passages in several textbooks as inflammatory, and said a teacher had complained of a separatist political agenda prevailing in such classes. Ms. Shafer says Horne has not visited any of the classes himself.
The law takes effect next January, and if the state superintendent or school board says Tucson schools are out of compliance, “I would imagine there would be a legal challenge,” Shafer says.
The law could be challenged on a First Amendment basis for being too broad and vague in its references to solidarity and resentment, says Ruthann Robson, a professor at the City University of New York School of Law. “The biggest problem is the chilling effect,” she says, noting that teachers or school leaders in Arizona might end or modify legitimate classes out of fear of losing funding.
A group of United Nations human rights experts expressed concern earlier this week about both the immigration and ethnic studies laws in Arizona. “Everyone has the right to seek and develop cultural knowledge and to know and understand his or her own culture...,” they said.
Hunger-strikers at the University of California at Berkeley recently included among their demands that the campus preserve its commitment to ethnic studies in light of what they considered an attack on such courses in the Arizona law. The group ended their strike Wednesday after a meeting with administrators produced “modest agreements.”