Cutting Class: Why Arizona’s Ethnic Studies Ban Won’t Ban Ethnic Studies

In 2006, Mexican-American labor activist Dolores Huerta told an assembly of Tucson High School students that “Republicans hate Latinos.” This remark set in motion a prolonged effort by then-Arizona State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne to rein in perceived racist and politically charged teaching in Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican-American Studies Program. Four years later, the Arizona State Legislature enacted HB 2281, a bill that proponents claimed would give the Superintendent authority to withhold a significant amount of funding from Tucson Unified School District if it refused to stop teaching Mexican-American Studies. This Note will demonstrate that the ethnic studies law is in fact much narrower than its proponents have suggested, so much so that it will not even apply to Tucson’s Mexican-American Studies Program. While the ethnic studies law makes sweeping prohibitions on teaching resentment and ethnic solidarity in the classroom, it simultaneously carves out vast exceptions allowing instruction on history and controversial issues. The end result is a law that will be difficult to enforce: for the Superintendent to determine that any classroom material violates the law, he must first observe how teachers actually present the material in the classroom. Additionally, the Superintendent may not conclude that a course violates the law because a high percentage of enrolled students are a particular race. Although supporters of HB 2281 celebrated the law’s passage as an important step in reining in radical public school courses, HB 2281 in fact leaves Arizona with an ambiguous, difficult to enforce law that will only be successful at removing curriculum decisions from more accountable local school boards and stirring up litigation between schools and the state.