Two years ago, and mere weeks after signing Arizona’s SB 1070 into law, Gov. Jan Brewer signed HB 2281, which barred Arizona public schools from teaching courses which advocated “the overthrow” of the United States government; encouraged “ethnic solidarity” or “promote resentment” toward any other ethnic group. The law was directly specifically at Tucson’s Mexican-American studies program, state schools chief Tom Horne admitted. School districts found violating the law could have lost 10 percent of their state funding as punishment. At the outset the Tucson Unified School District tried to defend the program by insisting it was fully compliant with the law. That strategy didn’t pan out; in January the program was suspended after the state ruled that MAS did indeed violate HB 2281.
Meanwhile, educators have gone straight to the source, trying to challenge the basic constitutionality of HB 2281. Their case is working its way through the courts, but on the ground, the fight continues. It turns out that Tucson’s educators and Latino youth are an irrepressible bunch; they’ve shut down school board meetings, organized weekend ethnic studies courses outside the district; and fought for the return of their program. Colorlines caught up with Arce to discuss the state of education in Arizona, and to separate myth from reality when it comes to ethnic studies.
You were fired earlier this month. Did this move surprise you?
It did not surprise me at all, given the politics of the state of Arizona. Unfortunately our local officials have cowered to these very discriminatory policies, so when we spoke out against the law, it left all of us vulnerable. Time and time again at our board meetings, when the district wanted to cower to state law, we spoke out as plaintiffs in the federal court case we’re engaged in. We spoke out against Superintendent John Pedicone. As a result, he clearly wanted to send a message of how dare you speak out against what we’re doing here in the district. Now they’re going after other teachers as well.
In January there was a White House summit for Latino education. The Department of Education’s Civil Rights division was there, the Department of Justice was there. I shared with them in a public forum that our district was retaliating against us and engaging in disparate discriminatory treatment, and violating the equal protection rights of our students by allowing other ethnic studies classes to continue.
As responsive educators we strongly believe that Native American Studies, African American studies, Pan Asian studies are essential. They’re great for our students. Yet there’s a clear disparate treatment, a clear violation of the equal protection of our students when you allow other classe to continue, yet you eliminate our classes.
And I reported all this back to Supt. John Pedicone. Since then I knew my job was going to be in jeopardy. But in the whole history of justice, and what is sound educational policy, that was more important than my job.