ACLU Files Records Request for Information on State Efforts to Enforce New Law Banning Ethnic Studies in Public Schools

Affiliate: ACLU of Arizona
June 10, 2010 12:00 am

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PHOENIX – The American Civil Liberties Union today filed a records request seeking to prompt the Arizona Department of Education to release documents related to the implementation of a new law banning ethnic studies programs that goes into effect December 31.

"HB 2281 is simply a new tactic for the age-old problem of government censorship of classroom discussions," said Alessandra Soler Meetze, executive director of the ACLU of Arizona. "Rather than taking the Texas approach and re-writing history books or pulling books off the library shelves, this law gives state education officials unlimited power to dictate what is politically acceptable content for the classroom. They have used their positions of authority to stifle important discussions they disagree with and in doing so are infringing on the First Amendment rights of students and teachers to access information. The public has a right to know how the state plans to enforce HB 2281 and what impact it will have on students across the state."

HB 2281, which was signed by Governor Brewer on May 11, threatens many important ethnic studies programs that have been shown to be both popular and successful in boosting academic achievement. The bill prohibits schools from teaching subjects that "advocate ethnic solidarity." Though it exempts courses that discuss "the historical oppression of a particular group of people based on ethnicity, race or class," the ACLU believes the law could still be interpreted in a way that prohibits the discussion of certain historical events and thereby chills speech. The law gives the state school superintendent or Board of Education the authority to deny school districts or charter schools up to 10 percent of their state aid if they're found to be non-compliant.

The ACLU's formal request for records comes on the heels of news reports stating that the Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne sought to pressure Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) officials to end their ethnic studies programs. The ACLU has requested, among other things, memos, e-mails and letters from Horne related to the Tucson classes.

The TUSD ethnic studies program includes African American, Mexican American, Native American and Pan-Asian studies. While the bill does not specifically cite the Mexican American studies program as one of the prohibited courses, Horne has been an outspoken critic of the Latino studies program since 2007, arguing it "teaches a kind of destructive ethnic chauvinism." In a 2007 "Open Letter to the Citizens of Tucson," Horne claimed one of the history textbooks used as part of the curriculum, The Mexican American Heritage (2nd ed.), was "gloating over the difficulty we are having in controlling the border" for its description of the U.S-Mexican War.

"Banning ideas that one official does not like is contrary to the mission of educational institutions and sends the message to schools that criticism of government is not allowed," added ACLU of Arizona Legal Director Dan Pochoda.

In today's request, the ACLU also seeks specific documents relating to: any investigation of TUSD or funding estimates that could be withheld from TUSD; communications with state elected representatives and officials about HB 2281; any investigation of other school districts the Arizona Department of Education believes could be in violation of HB 2281; and educational programs or curricula that the department believes could cause a school district to be in violation of HB 2281.

The ACLU has asked for a response by July 11.

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