Bending Toward Justice: Federal court bans Arizona law that prohibited Mexican-American studies

A federal court in Arizona entered final judgment on Wednesday in a long-running battle over a state law enacted in 2010 that banned ethnic studies classes in Arizona public schools. The judgment declared the state law unconstitutional and bars state education officials from enforcing it.

The final judgment puts an end to seven years of litigation between Tucson families and the Arizona Board of Education. Last summer, U.S. Appeals Court Judge Wallace A. Tashima, sitting by special designation to hear the case, presided over a two-week bench trial. Following that, he issued 42-page opinion detailing how insidious and racist attitudes led to the law.

As shown at the trial, Tucson schools have been under a court desegregation order since the mid-1970s. One aspect of the school district’s efforts to remedy the prior discrimination was to develop a Mexican-American studies curriculum for kindergarten through 12th grade, to teach art, literature, history and government to Latino students, so they could see their themselves and their families in their studies. The goal was to engage Latino students and close the large achievement gap between them and white students. Studies conducted in 2010 showed that Latino students who took Mexican-American studies courses performed better on tests and graduated high school at a higher rate than peers who did not.

Labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta spoke to Tucson high school in 2006 and told students that “Republican hate Latinos.” Then-State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne was incensed, and sent his deputy Margaret Dugan to give a rebuttal speech at the same high school, to tout how proud she was to be Latina and Republican. During her speech, several students taped their mouths shut, turned their backs, raised their fists, and walked out.

This incident sent Horne on a multi-year odyssey to prove that the Mexican-American studies curriculum was teaching students ethnic chauvinism, anti-Americanism, and a separatist political agenda. He asked Tucson families to vote out members of the local school board who supported the program. They refused. He then spent three years trying to push a bill through the state legislature to prohibit classes that are “designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group” or “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”

When Horne’s bill passed the Arizona House of Representatives, State Senator John Huppenthal took up the cause in the Arizona Senate. At the time, Huppenthal was running to succeed Horne as the Superintendent of Public Instruction. He campaign on stopping what he called La Raza, a dog-whistle term he used with fellow Republicans when referring to the Mexican-American studies program. Huppethal called the curriculum “evil” and “toxic.” Huppenthal also posted anonymous racist comments on various blogs disparaging the program.

Horne’s bill was enacted into law in 2010. As the court explained:

The statute prohibits a school district or charter school from including in its program of instruction any courses that: (1) “Promote the overthrow of the United States government,” (2) “Promote resentment toward a race or class of people,” (3) “Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group,”15 or (4) “Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” See A.R.S. § 15-112(A). If the State Board of Education or the Superintendent of Public Instruction determines that a school district is in violation of the statute, the district has sixty days to achieve compliance. If the district fails to comply, the Superintendent or State Board may direct ADE to withhold ten percent of the district’s funding.

On his last day in office as schools superintendent, Horne issued a notice to the Tucson School District that the Mexican-American studies program violated the statute and it had 60 days to come into compliance. In his letter, Horne noted that the Asian-American, Native-American, and African-American studies courses in Tucson schools could be in violation of the statute, but he never took any action with respect to those classes.

When Huppenthal took office, he didn’t immediately enforce Horne’s letter by withholding funding. Instead, he hired a curriculum consulting firm to audit the Mexican-American studies program for violations of the new statute. When the consultants returned an audit that found no violation, Huppenthal rejected it and directed his staff to conduct its own investigation to find a violation. He then enforced the statute against the Tucscon schools, costing the district 10% of its funding. At the same time, Huppenthal continued to make racist blog comments. He equated the Mexican-American studies program with Hitler and the Klu Klux Klan.

Based on this evidence, Judge Tashima found that the statute was enacted and enforced with discriminatory intent against Latino students, parents and teachers, and thus violated the Fourteenth Amendment. He also found that the students’ First Amendment rights were violated because Horne and Huppenthal acted with racial animus in seeking to ban the Mexican-American studies curriculum, without any rational pedagogical justification.

The state is now prohibited from enforcing the statute for seven years, at which time the court will determine if the injunction needs to be amended or extended.

The Arizona Board of Education has not yet announced if it will appeal.