Issue 116, Spring 2012

In January 2012, when Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) students returned from a long weekend, they found teachers boxing up books, and already emptied classroom bookshelves. Literally hundreds – perhaps thousands – of books were packed up and sent to a warehouse. Some of the boxes were marked “Banned.” Students were witnessing the shutdown of the district’s acclaimed Mexican-American Studies (MAS) program.

The Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction had killed a successful academic program because “although it can benefit all students, [MAS] exists primarily to serve Latino students" (note: 60% of students in TUSD are Mexican-American) and contains references to “white people as being ‘oppressors.’” Is education in Arizona falling victim to the strident political conflict over immigration that is plaguing the state?

In April 2010, less than three weeks before approving the notorious SB 1070, the strictest anti-illegal immigration measure in recent U.S. history (currently subject to litigation), the state enacted SB 2281, a law prohibiting any “instruction” that is “designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group,” advocates “ethnic solidarity,” or promotes “the overthrow of the United States government” and “resentment towards a race or class of people.”

In 2011, the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, John Huppenthal, who as a state legislator in 2010 had sponsored the bill, decided that the MAS program violated the law. He found that content used in some classes promoted “resentment towards a race or class” and ruled that, unless the MAS program was dismantled, the district would lose millions in state funding. The district voted to eliminate the program in its entirety and to remove all books that were used in MAS classes.

Teachers were instructed that they could not “use the MAS curriculum,” and that “the focus of student learning must not exclusively trail back to MAS curriculum and issues.” To make sure teachers were sufficiently scared away from MAS issues, officials advised them that student work would be collected by an “evaluator” to ensure compliance with the policy. The final deathblow came when the board voted not to renew the contract of Sean Arce, the former director of the MAS program.

Responding to the ensuing outrage in the community, the district denied that books were censored, because a couple of copies remained available in the library. While in some cases censorship may be hard to define, this is not one of them. Not only is this censorship, but it is the worst kind of political censorship intended to suppress ideas some public officials do not like. The books were removed and courses cancelled for one reason only: the political ideas they contained.

The MAS program is not the only case where Arizona state lawmakers have tried to legislate silence: A proposed bill introduced in February would penalize teachers who engage “in speech or conduct that would violate the standards adopted by the FCC concerning obscenity, indecency and profanity.” Teachers who read aloud from certain classic novels, or even discuss infringing passages from them, might risk termination if the bill becomes law.

Broad-based student and community protests show the people of Arizona will fight to preserve education and freedom of speech in their state. Legislators should heed their rising voices.