Arizona Can't Ban Mexican American Studies in Schools

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on August 29, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Generally speaking, courts are fairly deferential to schools on educational matters, except possibly when it comes to race. And while the Supreme Court has major rulings on school desegregation and affirmative action, this might be the first time a federal court has taken up the issue of race in a school district's curriculum.

Arizona had passed legislation prohibiting courses "designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group," which targeted a decades-long, voluntary Mexican American Studies program for K-12 students in the Tucson Unified School District. But a federal judge ruled the ban was "enacted and enforced with a discriminatory purpose," and is therefore unconstitutional.

Racial Animus

Judging from local reporting on the ban, it became a personal issue. The Arizona Daily Star reports that Arizona's superintendent of public education at the time, Tom Horne, and former state senator, and Horne's successor John Huppenthal, had it out for the Mexican American Studies program for years, culminating in an alleged blog post comment by Huppenthal comparing the classes to Hitler's rise to power.

In 2010, the Arizona Senate passed H.B. 2281, which prohibited 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," or
  4. "Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals."

Racial Motivations

In a scathing opinion, Judge A. Wallace Tashima determined officials "were motivated by racial animus" and were pushing "discriminatory ends in order to make political gains." Tashima ruled that the ban violated students' First and Fourteenth Amendment rights by denying them the "right to receive information and ideas" and discrimination against Latinos, respectively.

"Having thus ruled out any pedagogical motivation," Tashima wrote, "the Court is convinced that decisions regarding the MAS program were motivated by a desire to advance a political agenda by capitalizing on race-based fears."

The court will hear arguments regarding what remedies to take in the coming weeks.

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