Language Education Policy Studies
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U.S.-Ethnic Studies Outlawed in Arizona 

Language education policy reforms that aim to meet the needs of immigrant students commonly focus on elementary education and debates about if and how bilingual education should be provided to students brought up with a mother tongue other than English.  As these students progress through public school systems and become more proficient in the dominant language, policy debates are more likely to shift to curricular content, especially how immigrant communities are represented in History and English classes.  The most dramatic and high-profile recent controversy focused on such struggles began in Tucson, Arizona, in 2010, when House Bill 2281 was passed by the state’s Republican-led legislature and signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer. The bill forbids any educational material that is perceived to foster resentment or hatred of other races or classes of people.  More specifically, HB 2281 stipulates the following:


A school district or charter school in this state shall not include in its program of instruction any courses or classes that include any of the following:


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.

4. Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.


Although the language of this legislation is very broad, it was composed specifically to target only one of the four ethnic studies programs in the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD): a program in Mexican American Studies (MAS) created in the late 1990s by a team of experienced educators (as an interesting sidenote, the bill is careful not to prohibit grouping students according to English proficiency for ESL classes, as Stevens and Stovali note, 2010, p. 296).  To understand the controversy, it is helpful to know some details about the origins of the program and what its creators hoped to achieve.

Like language education policy designed for social justice objectives, the MAS program was created in 1997 to address pressing issues of educational equity in the TUSD: a high drop-out rate among high school Latino students (who make up more than 60% of all students in the system), and more general academic achievement gaps. With the unanimous support of the school board, a department was established that eventually became the Mexican-American/Raza Studies Department. Teachers like Curtis Acosta and Sean Arce designed new curricula for English and History classes that students of all backgrounds could elect to take during their Junior and Senior years.  The courses included texts about Mexican American writers and history––classics of Ethnic Studies such as Rethinking Columbus and Occupied America––and offered challenging materials that related directly to the students’ communities, experiences, and ethnic identities.  Eventually the program was expanded to become district wide and to provide course offerings in K–12 (Santa Cruz, 2010). From student testimonials offered in Precious Knowledge (2012), a recent documentary about the controversy, it is clear how profoundly this curriculum affected students’ academic motivation and engagement.  Many of these students report that the classes turned their lives around and encouraged them to graduate from high school and apply to college.


Those who have vehemently opposed this curriculum, however, perceive these materials as likely to produce very different outcomes, ones related not to academic achievement but to racial and ethnic division, and possibly even sedition (thus the first item on the list above).  Two successive Superintendents of Public Instruction (an elected position) in Arizona, Tom Horne and John Huppenthal, have persisted in claiming that these materials would inevitably create ethnic resentment or even race hatred among students.  In a 2012 interview with “Democracy Now!” Huppenthal claimed that MAS courses were designed not to educate but to indoctrinate.  Whites were depicted uniformly as oppressors and Marxist thinkers and political figures like Paolo Freire and Che Guevara were held up as role models.  He and Horne repeatedly asserted that the ideas promoted in these classes were radical, subversive, and anti-American, and that anyone who looked closely at exactly what was being taught would be shocked.  Huppenthal even hired an outside firm to conduct an audit about whether the MAS program was producing the ideologically dangerous results that he predicted in violation of HB 2281.  The outcome of that audit proved the critics wrong: the program was “in compliance” with the new law (Cabrera et al, 2011).  Additional academic studies have confirmed what MAS instructors knew from the beginning: that the program worked, that it transformed at-risk students’ relation to education, cultivated their critical thinking skills, and fueled academic achievement. A 2010 study by Cabrera et al found that Latino students enrolled in MAS classes were 64% more likely to pass standardized tests and 51% more likely to graduate (compared to similar students not enrolled). Continued on Ethnic Studies Outlawed.


website and video clips from 2011 documentary, Precious Knowledge

link to Cabrera et al (2012)

“Statement on Tucson Mexican American Studies Program” from the Executive Council of the Modern Language Association (Feb. 2012)

Xican@ Institute for Teaching and Organizing (founded by Curtis Acosta)


“Banned in Arizona,” Need to Know, PBS

footage from April 26, 2011, UNIDOS student protests at TUSD School Board meeting

The Mending News, testimonials from Tucson students and teachers (Part 1) (Part 2)

Democracy, Now!, “Tucson School's Book Ban After Suspension of Mexican American Studies Program,” interview/debate with John Huppenthal and Richard Martinez, Jan. 18, 2012

A FEW REFERENCES (Continued on next page)

Arizona State Legislature. (2010).  Arizona State Legislator Bills. Retrieved from



Banks, S.  (2014, December 15).  In L.A. schools, the time has come for ethnic studies classes. Los Angeles Times.


Banned in Arizona. (Feb. 13, 2013).  Need to Know.  Retrieved from PBS Online.


Cabrera, N. L., Milem, J. F., & Marx, R. W. (2012). An empirical analysis of the effects of Mexican American Studies participation on student achievement within Tucson Unified School District. Tucson, AZ: Report to Special Master Dr. Willis D. Hawley on the Tucson Unified School District Desegregation Case, 1–19.


Cabrera, N. L., Meza, E. L., & Rodriguez, R. C.  (2011). The fight for Mexican American Studies in Tucson.  NACLA Report on the Americas, 44(6), 20–24.


Cabrera, N. L., Milem, J. F., Jaquette, O., & Marx, R. W. (2014).  Missing the (student achievement) forest for all the (political) trees: Empiricism and the Mexican American Studies controversy in Tucson.  American Educational Research Journal, 51(6), 1084–1118.


Cambium Learning. (2011).  Curriculum audit of the Mexican American Studies Department, Tucson Unified School District.  Tucson, AZ.  1–120.  Retrieved from


Carcamo, D. (2013, March 12). Judge upholds Arizona law banning ethnic studies classes.  Los Angeles Times, n.p.


Democracy, Now! (2012, Jan. 18).  Tucson School's book ban after suspension of Mexican American Studies Program. interview/debate with John Huppenthal and Richard Martinez.  Retrieved from


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This information was originally published on the website of the International Network for Language Education Policy Studies ( as

Garrett, Julia M. (2015). Ethnic Studies Outlawed in Arizona (I). In F. V. Tochon (Ed.), Language Education Policy Studies (online). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin—Madison. Retrieved from: (access date). 

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