On this dayMay 11, 2010

Arizona Passes Unconstitutional Law Banning Ethnic Studies Programs from Public Schools

Ross D. Franklin / AP

On May 11, 2010, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed into law HB 2281, a legislative act designed to end Ethnic Studies classes in the state. This law banned schools from engaging with certain books written by authors of color and temporarily eliminated the Mexican American Studies program in Tucson schools, preventing hundreds of students from engaging with their history and culture within a school setting for almost a decade.

The signing of HB 2281 came just weeks after Governor Brewer signed SB 1070, Arizona's controversial immigration law that was then among the nation's strictest, and which opponents criticized as encouraging racial profiling. Though less publicized, HB2281 also had far-reaching consequences for people of color in Arizona and any students interested in studying their history. The law banned all classes alleged to “promote the overthrow of the United States government” or “promote resentment toward a race or class of people” and classes “designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group” which “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” In January 2012, after the state superintendent's office threatened to withhold 10% of the district’s annual funding, the Tucson School District voted to cut the Mexican American Studies program in compliance with the new law.

Beginning in the 1990s, Mexican-American educators in Tucson, Arizona came together to build a program to narrow the achievement gap between Latino students and white students by widening the scope of traditional curriculum, including introducing books written by authors of color. Students who engaged in the program, which was open to all, saw great success with reportedly increased test scores and higher graduation rates. Proponents of HB2281, however, accused Ethnic Studies courses of segregating students and impeding assimilation. Tom Horne, the state superintendent of public instruction, seemingly overlooking the nation’s long history of racially segregated public education, argued that the public school system has always “brought together students from different backgrounds and taught them to be Americans and to treat each other as individuals.” Referring to those who supported the Mexican American Studies program, Horne dismissively said, “They are the ‘Bull Connors.’ They are resegregating.” John Huppenthal, a state Senator who helped pass the law, claimed that these programs designed to increase representation within the classroom were similar to the Ku Klux Klan; in making that comparison, Huppenthal trivialized a long and deadly history of white supremacist racial violence in America. Huppenthal also fervently declared on social media that Spanish-English media should be shut down, and later referred to people receiving public assistance as "lazy pigs." 

HB 2281 not only forced the Tucson School District to eliminate its Mexican American Studies course; the law also led the district to remove several books from its classrooms, including Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and The Tempest by William Shakespeare. In a meeting with Mexican American Studies teachers, administrators ultimately advised them to avoid any units that included “race, ethnicity, and oppression as central themes.”

After courts repeatedly refused to strike down the law for several years, a federal court held that HB 2281 was passed with the specific intention “to advance a political agenda by capitalizing on race-based fear.” HB 2281 was formally invalidated as unconstitutional in 2017, nearly a decade following its passage, and after the law had already denied hundreds of students the opportunity to study within a culturally diverse setting. 

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