A United States federal court has banned the enforcement of an Arizona law, saying it violates students’ constitutional rights.
The law at the center of the judgment is ARS 15-112, which aimed to eliminate programs such as Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican-American Studies (MAS) program. The law bans classes “designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.”
Richard Martinez, the attorney who represents a group of Mexican-American students who attended the Tucson Unified School District, said the students sued shortly after the law was passed by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer.
“This was their curriculum that was intended to be responsive to them…culturally, linguistically, educationally,” Martinez said. “The program had a very strong effect on students’ achievement… in fact, most of the students finished high school and matriculated to college, which was unprecedented at Tucson Unified School District.”
Most of the students are now in college, with two students currently enrolled in high school in the Tucson Unified School District.
Closing the gap
According to court documents, the program was established in 1998 and included courses like art, government, literature, and history focusing on “historic and contemporary Mexican-American contributions.” It was meant to help Mexican-American students engage and relate to their studies and to “close the historic gap in academic achievement between Mexican-American and white students in Tucson.”
The MAS program was a success, U.S. District Court Judge Wallace Tashima noted, writing that “one would expect that officials responsible for public education in Arizona would continue, not terminate, an academically successful program.”
However, the program drew negative attention from Arizona Department of Education officials. Tom Horne, the former superintendent of public instruction, said the program was “‘extremely anti-American” because it promotes “essentially revolution against the American government.”
According to court documents, Horne never attended a class from the program to see what was being taught there and yet recommended the program be canceled. When the Tucson Unified School District didn’t accept his recommendation, Horne “began lobbying for statewide legislation that would ban the program.” His third draft of a bill prohibiting ethnic courses passed the House.
“This is America, speak English.”
That was when John Huppenthal, a Senator who was chairman of the Senate Education Accountability and Reform Committee, became a proponent of the bill. It passed the Legislature in 2010 and both officials used the bill “to make political gains,” Judge Tashima said, using the issue as “a political boon,” that the men referenced in their political campaigns.
The court also found that Huppenthal posted discriminatory comments on a blog a few months after the bill passed. Huppenthal, who wrote under two pseudonyms, said things like, “I don’t mind them selling Mexican food as long as the menus are mostly in English.” He also wrote that embracing Mexico’s values is “the rejection of success and embracement of failure,” and opposed Spanish-language media saying, “This is America, speak English.” He also wrote a blog comment comparing the Mexican-American Studies classes to the “KKK in a different color,” called the teachers skinheads and said they “use the exact same technique that Hitler used in his rise to power.”
These blog comments, the Judge said, were “the most important and direct evidence that racial animus infected the decision to enact” the bill.
Tashima ultimately concluded that the bill “was enacted and enforced with a discriminatory purpose” since “students have a First Amendment right to receive information and ideas” and said current Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas and Horne and Huppenthal “acted contrary to the First and Fourteenth Amendments,” “violated students’ constitutional rights,” and said the bill “was not enacted in a legitimate educational purpose.”
The defendants have 30 days to appeal and “the clock is ticking,” said Martinez.
“Everyone is very pleased to bring this eight-year challenge to closure in such a positive way. Now public school students in Arizona will be allowed to take classes that teach their history and literature, to hear their own stories and know that they, too, are part of the rich American fabric,” Martinez said.
CNN has requested comment from the Arizona Department of Education as well as the state’s attorney general. Tucson Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Gabriel Trujillo did not have a comment, his spokeswoman said. The District and staff are on winter break.