Arizona lawmakers have upheld the decision to ban ethnic studies in the Tucson Unified School district, which they believe to be in violation of ARS 15-22, a law designed to favor the teaching of Anglo-American culture. The specific target was Mexican American studies (MAS), and across the district, programs were disbanded, curricula reworked and educational materials confiscated. The decision caused an outrage among educators, parents and students alike, and was seen as an oppressive act.
Countless individuals have mobilized to speak against the ban. One of those people is Curtis Acosta, a teacher at Tucson High Magnet School, the oldest school in Arizona, whose Mexican American studies program was dissolved as a result of the bill. Mr. Acosta has been outspoken since the beginning, joining a coalition of activists called Save Ethnic Studies and participating in the documentary Precious Knowledge.
Teach.com recently spoke with Mr. Acosta to discuss his thoughts on this pressing issue.
Teach.com: The ban seeks to prohibit education that “promotes the overthrow of the United States government” or “resentment toward a race or class of people.” What do you believe is the rationale? How has the ban come about, and what do you think is its real agenda?
Curtis Acosta: The real agenda for the law has been realized. Our Mexican American studies program has been dismantled and destroyed, and this was the entire purpose of the legislation. We must be incredibly accurate and precise in our analysis of the effects of the law formally known as HB2281. Ethnic studies still exists in the Tucson Unified School District and in other places throughout the state; it is only the MAS program in TUSD that this law has been applied towards, so one can make the correlation that the intention of the law was specifically to target and eliminate our classes.
The rationale for eliminating a highly productive and renowned program of academic achievement for all our students is politically motivated. Our classes served as a wedge issue to inspire fear and hate in citizens in our community, which translated into votes for politicians who appeal to the current anti-immigrant and anti-Latino climate in our state. The changing demographics of our state and the increased Chicano/Latino presence is a major contributor to our situation. Instead of embracing the growing population of Chicanos/Latinos, there is a palpable fear of the changing face of Arizona. Lastly, our students and youth are passionate and self-determined. They are civically engaged and do not blink when faced with issues of injustice or inequality. I believe that the same politicians who targeted our program were completely bewildered by such empowered young people.
Teach: In a letter reprinted by the Rethinking Schools Blog, you provided an example of two essay prompts you’d given your students and which parts had to be excised because they leaned “too much towards Mexican American studies.” What are the specific changes you and your colleagues have had to make to your curricula? What does the government deem “too ethnic?” How do you work within those limitations to ensure the quality of education for your students?
CA: It is important to note that we have no idea what the government or our district administration deem to be problematic in our curriculum and pedagogy due to the vagueness of the law. The state completely ignored their own month-long audit of our curriculum, which was over 100 pages affirming that our curriculum was centered upon peace, love and building positive academic identities for our students. Instead, they relied upon hearsay and curriculum examples that were taken out of context. Unfortunately, our district passively defended us in their formal appeal to the state and did not challenge hyperbolic claims made by witnesses for the state’s case, including TUSD Governing Board members who campaigned to eliminate our classes. This was beyond frustrating and disappointing for many of us who have dedicated our entire youth and careers to this district.
We were directed to completely abandon any of our former lessons and curriculum designed for our MAS classes. In essence, we were banned from our own ideas and intellectual property. Our voices as teachers were completely silenced, and we were instructed to only use the district-adopted textbooks. I only received three days of preparation time to completely redesign my syllabus, read the literature and compose new lessons. Suffice it to say, it was not enough time to adequately prepare, so our students went from a college preparatory curriculum to one that was, at best, rudimentary. It was a complete tragedy, although we did our best within the situation, and my students were resilient and diligent in their studies, and made me very proud.
Teach: Can you speak a little bit about your work with Save Ethnic Studies? How does this organization seek to impact policy and opinion regarding the ban? What is the status of your efforts to overturn the law?
CA: Save Ethnic Studies was created as our fundraising arm to mount our legal challenge in federal court. We have been blessed to receive both spiritual and financial support from communities all over the nation and without them we would not have been able to mount a defense of our program. At the moment, we are awaiting a decision regarding the constitutionality of the law from Judge A. Wallace Tashima. Our attorney, Richard Martínez, filed a motion for summary judgment that empowers Judge Tashima to be able to make the decision before a full trial is needed. His decision can come at any time. If he denies our request, then the full trial will proceed, which we expect to begin sometime at the end of this calendar year.
Teach: How do you think people in Arizona and across the nation can help in the most effective way?
CA: At this point, we still need resources for our court case, so any donations would be extremely helpful. Folks can donate here. It is important to emphasize that our lawyer is working pro bono so all donations go directly to the costs of mounting the legal defense --- and it is remarkably costly.
Besides financial support, I believe people who are passionate in our defense can help us through awareness in their local communities, as well as collective actions, such as letters of support to our school board or state officials. This summer, many supporters from around the nation are making their way to Tucson to assist in efforts toward the restitution of our program and justice. And, by all means, we need creativity, such as the “No History is Illegal” campaign by the Teacher Activist Groups or the Librotraficante caravan, to continue to inspire our community and youth to never give up.
Teach: If you had to guess, where do you see this going? What is the future of Mexican American studies, and what is it going to look like?
CA: Eventually, I am certain that we will have Mexican American studies in our district. It will take the will of our community to show up and vote so that we have a school board that is responsive and respectful of our community. We will need the passion and creativity of the youth to bring us back and to reinvent our classes in the image they desire. Transformation and change is nothing to fear. It is a natural process, but unfortunately, the loss of our classes was not an authentic transformation, so it is up to our community to rebuild our program together. We have not lost hope, but we cannot do this alone and need all your help.