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A lesson in tolerance for Arizona

If the state's lawmakers are worried about growing resentment among its Latino residents, they have no one but themselves to blame.

June 10, 2012
  • Students and faculty stood arm-in-arm in front of Tucson Magnet High School to protest the ban of ethnic study programs at Tucson Unified School District schools in 2010.
Students and faculty stood arm-in-arm in front of Tucson Magnet High School… (Los Angeles Times )

It's been nearly a year since John Huppenthal, Arizona's superintendent of public instruction, decided to dismantle the Tucson Unified School District's Mexican American studies program by invoking an absurd new state law.

The law, which was enacted in 2010 but took effect last year, outlaws school programs that "promote resentment toward a race or class of people" or that advocate for "the overthrow of the U.S." or that encourage "ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals." Of course, it was designed to solve a phantom problem. There are no data to indicate that Arizona students are being taught resentment, much less that they're being encouraged to overthrow the government. Yet the state's conservatives, already at war with Latino immigrants, clearly see this as a potentially fruitful strategy to win campaign support and votes.

Huppenthal, a former legislator and a zealous supporter of the new law, declared that Tucson's Mexican American studies program violated it. But how he reached his decision is a mystery. An independent audit commissioned by Huppenthal's office last year concluded that the program not only promoted tolerance but also helped students perform better in school. The audit cited improved standardized test scores and graduation rates for high school students in the program.

Huppenthal chose to ignore those findings and instead waged a mean-spirited and dangerous campaign. He threatened to withdraw nearly $14 million in state aid unless school board officials agreed to shut down the Mexican American studies program.

But the district may soon get help. As it turns out, the program was created under court supervision in response to a race discrimination lawsuit brought by African American and Latino students against Tucson public schools in 1974. The ethnic studies program was designed to help stamp out vestiges of discrimination and attract students to the segregated schools. This year, a federal court appointed a special master to help design a new plan to ensure that Tucson's schools comply with the decades-old desegregation order. That plan is due this month. We hope it reinstates the ethnic studies program and that the court agrees. A program that helps students graduate and go on to college should be preserved.

If Arizona lawmakers are worried about growing resentment among the state's Latino residents, they have no one but themselves to blame — along with Gov. Jan Brewer, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and other local officials, that is. Bad laws that promise to drive out illegal immigrants are what is provoking that resentment, not textbooks or classes that simply include long-overlooked chapters of American history.

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