Arizona official considers extending ethnic studies law to universities

An Arizona lawmaker wants to extend an ethnic studies law passed in 2010 to Arizona universities, which ASU’s School of Transborder Studies director said would be difficult to enforce.

In a March 28 interview with Fox News Latino, Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction said he is considering suspending Mexican American studies in Arizona universities.

Superintendent John Huppenthal, who led the fight to suspend Mexican American studies from the Tucson Unified School District, said universities are responsible for the public school’s curricula that teaches students to resent Anglo-Saxons.

“I think that’s where this toxic thing starts from,” Huppenthal said in the interview.

As superintendent of public instruction, Huppenthal executes State Board of Education policies and laws that apply to public and charter schools in Arizona.

By virtue of his elected public office, Huppenthal serves on all statewide public education boards, including the Arizona Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s public university policies and procedures.

Although his comments were mainly directed toward the Mexican American Studies Department at UA, the possibility of Huppenthal attempting to extend his efforts to the university level has caused alarm among ASU students in similar programs.

Transborder community development and health freshman Junive Gill Vega said Latino programs provide students with a sense of belonging.

“(These programs) let us know how much we have developed and how much more we can accomplish. Taking that away is essentially taking away who we are,” Vega said.

It is necessary for students to know a region’s culture and history in order to better the community, she said.

When Huppenthal was leading an effort to suspend the TUSD Mexican American studies program, one of his concerns was that the curricula did not provide a balanced view of history to its students.

“The pervasive problem was the lack of balance going on in these classes,” Huppenthal said in his Fox News Latino interview.

Huppenthal was unavailable for comment.

At ASU, most programs with a Latino focus are located in the School of Transborder Studies, which was officially established in May 2011.

Carlos Vélez-Ibáñez, regent’s professor and director of the School of Transborder Studies, said the school’s aim is to develop a knowledge and understanding of populations on both sides of the border.

“The premise is very simple,” Vélez-Ibáñez said. “The entire region has been integrated economically since the 19th century. In order to fundamentally understand Mexican-origin populations on the U.S. side, you have to understand that the region has a long relationship.”

Vélez-Ibáñez added it is important for people to realize that Spanish-Mexican history has been incorporated with American history in the Southwest region from the beginning.

“The way to fundamentally understand this is through learning,” Vélez-Ibáñez said. “You have to understand the policies and politics of the region rather than just on the north side of the border or on the Mexican side of the border. That’s what makes us different.”

The school’s classes focus on the two countries’ shared political, social and economic history in the Southwest, Vega said.

“It’s not just looking at Mexican history,” Vega said. “It’s looking at the two histories combined and seeing how, by working together, they have been able to accomplish much more than they would have alone.”

During his time as a state senator, Huppenthal helped pass House Bill 2281, which was authored by his predecessor, Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne.

The bill was signed into law in May 2010 by Governor Jan Brewer. It prohibits curricula in public and charter schools that “promote the overthrow of the U.S. government; promote resentment toward a race or class of people; are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group; or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”

Although the bill was signed in 2010, the TUSD’s Mexican American Studies program was not suspended until Administrative Law Judge Lewis Kowal ruled it violated the law in December 2011.

On Jan. 5, Huppenthal ordered TUSD to suspend its Mexican American Studies program or lose 10 percent of its funding, which was estimated to be about $14 million.

The school board decided to shut down the program in a four-to-one vote.

Vélez-Ibáñez said he does not believe this could happen at the university level.

“The superintendent of schools has, at best, a nominal position on the Board of Regents,” Vélez-Ibáñez said. “We have a lot of friends on the board. They know that this is a learning jewel and that the programs offered are first-rate.”

Vélez-Ibáñez added that if Huppenthal were to pursue suspending Mexican American studies at Arizona universities, he would be infringing upon academic freedom.

“As far as the superintendent of public schools is concerned, he’s in a different league,” Vélez-Ibáñez said. “He would be taking on one of the founding principles of academic freedom at all universities. I don’t think he has neither the standing nor the knowledge to take on that challenge.”

Huppenthal’s actions would hurt the reputation of the state of Arizona, Vélez-Ibáñez said.

“There would be a very, very hard pushback on the part of not just this university, but universities around the country,” Vélez-Ibáñez said. “It would be one more black eye on this very wonderful state of Arizona.”

Reach the reporter at aklee8@asu.edu

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