Arizona Teacher Assails Dismantling of Successful Ethnic Studies Program

Curtis Acosta claims Law Unfairly Targeted Mexican-American Students

HARTFORD, CT, October 3, 2012 – Prior to 2010, the Mexican-American Studies program in the Tucson, AZ United School District had been a model of success, with a nearly 98 percent graduation rate for high school students enrolled in the program, compared to 44 percent of Mexican-American students nationally. What’s more, 70 percent of the enrolled students went on to college, compared to 24 percent nationally.

One of the teachers who participated in the program, Curtis Acosta, a teacher at Tucson High Magnet School, the oldest school in Arizona, provided those figures during a Common Hour lecture Tuesday in which he assailed that state’s public officials for enacting a law that he claims is discriminatory, unconstitutional, oppressive and even hateful.

The title of Acosta’s talk was “Banned Histories – Mexican-American Studies and the Struggle for Education Justice in Arizona.”

The law -- which prohibits school districts from teaching courses or classes that promotes the overthrow of the United States government; promotes resentment toward any race or class; advocates ethnic solidarity; or is designed for a certain ethnicity -- was signed by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer in May 2010. 

Acosta, who developed and taught Chican@/Latin@Literature classes, alleges that the law, which is being challenged in federal court, violates the U.S. Constitution’s First and Fourteenth Amendments and will eventually end up being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The program was the largest public school ethnic studies program in the nation before it was disbanded.

In addition to the legal challenge, supporters of the program have held rallies, spoken out at school board meetings, and fought for the return of the program – all to no avail.

The law is among many approved in Arizona in recent years that the state’s Latino population believes unfairly targets them in terms of education, employment, racial profiling and in other ways. Interestingly, while the Mexican-American Studies program was dismantled, none of the other three ethnic studies programs in the Tucson school district were touched.

HB2281 was devised by Tom Horne, who was then Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, in the belief that the Mexican-American Studies program was teaching “destructive ethnic chauvinism.” 

Acosta called Horne “the most anti-Latino public official in Arizona,” and said Horne also supported a bill that would have “killed bilingual education, targeted educators with foreign accents and cited schools for providing an education to undocumented students.”

Because there was widespread disagreement over the intent of the Mexican-American Studies program, in June 2011, the Arizona Education Department spent $110,000 on an audit of the program. The audit found “no observable evidence…to suggest that any classroom in the Tucson Unified School District is in direct violation of the law.” However, John Huppenthal (the successor to Horne, who by then had been elected state attorney general) disagreed with the audit and ruled that the district was out of compliance with the law.

In January of this year, the governing board of the Tucson Unified School District voted to eliminate the Mexican-American Studies program after Huppenthal threatened to withhold 10 percent, or $15 million, of the District’s annual funding. Acosta and others viewed the action of the board as caving in to political pressure. 

The lawsuit was filed in October 2012 but Acosta said the plaintiffs are already in debt for tens of thousands of dollars. In an effort to help defray the cost, a group was formed called Save Ethnic Studies. For more information about the litigation and the issue as it unfolded, please visit: http://saveethnicstudies.org/

In addition to his teaching responsibilities, Acosta is one of the filmmakers of Precious Knowledge, which discusses the ongoing battle to save the program and lays out the argument that it had been a “model of national success.”  For more information about the program and the movie, please visit: www.preciousknowledgefilm.com.

Acosta received his B.A. from Willamette University in Salem, OR, and his master’s degree in language, reading and culture from the University of Arizona in Tucson, where he is currently pursuing his Ph.D.