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Mexican American Studies in Tucson – Victory or An Ouroboros Moment?

April 7, 2012

Information cocoons are a real phenomenon, spun by the positive feedback loop of only considering opinions consistent with one’s own currently held opinion. Cocoons can also be created by our inability to assimilate and process the sheer volume of information available[1] to us.

I was reminded of the latter when I was made aware of a recent interview[2] by Al Madrigal on the Jon Stewart show.  Madrigal interviews Tucson school board member Michael Hicks on the ban Mexican-American Studies programs. For starters it’s hilarious but also underscores that Stewart has his own cocoon because it was apparent that Hicks had no idea the interview was satirical. This is a multimedia posting because you have to listen to the interview before going any further. It’s worth the few minutes of time it will take.

After watching the interview I realized I had been in my own chrysalis because I knew nothing about the ban on the Mexican-American Studies (MAS) program. I decided to look into the “real story” and see the context for the interview. It turned out to be a slippery slope with the first step on the snow bank being an NPR interview[3] of Arizona state superintendent John Huppenthal by Michel Martin. This is also a “must listen” interview!

Madrigal’s interview of Hicks aired April 2, 2012 while the Martin interview aired on January 18, 2012. The similarities are notable which detracts nothing from either but reinforces that there appeared to be a common thread running through the situation that one might portray as paranoia or xenophobia. I shouldn’t be that surprised because it IS Arizona and their government’s stance on immigration is well known from Governor Jan Brewer all the way to, apparently, a local school board member.

As I continued to slip down the slope and read more about the case I was struck at how incredibly effective the xenophobes had been in attacking MAS. I said xenophobes but in reality it’s safe to say Tea Party. With Tea Party support and being a frequent speaker at Tea Party events, Huppenthal had been elected as Superintendent using the campaign slogan “Stop la Raza.”

The fact that Huppenthal implemented the ban is of utterly no surprise since as a former Arizona state senator and Chairmen of the Education Committee, Huppenthal was responsible for passage of the revised statute to ban MAS under what some have called questionable circumstances and what others call partisan politics.[4] Regardless of the mechanism, on December 31, 2010, HB 2281 became Arizona Revised Statute 15-112 (ARS § 15-112), which states that classes in Arizona public schools cannot engage in the following acts:

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 (Arizona Revised Statute § 15-112, 2010).

Ostensibly as an act of due diligence, Huppenthal commissioned an independent review of the MAS program by the Cambium Learning[5] and National Academic Educational Partners (NAEP).[6] However, the May  2011, 120 page report[7] determined that TUSD was in compliance unambiguously stating on page 53 “During the curriculum audit period, no observable evidence was present to suggest that any classroom within Tucson Unified School District is in direct violation of the law A.R.S. 15-112.”  Later in the report on page 69 the auditors concluded, “No evidence exists in any format that Arizona Revised Statue 15-112 (A) is being violated in any of the six American History from Mexican American Perspective courses visited.”

Q.E.D., right? Not exactly.

Not to be dissuaded by the independent audit, Huppenthal rejected the conclusion of the report stating that he would perform his own review in which he determined that he was correct all along. On June 15, 2011 he deemed the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) out of compliance.[8]

At the end of December 2011, Administrative Judge Kowal (appointed by Governor Jan Brewer – more Tea Party influence) released a decision that TUSD’s ethnic studies program was in violation of state law. Shortly thereafter, on January 6, 2011 Huppenthal announced the MAS program to be officially out of compliance. It was at this time that he announced that he was cutting state funding to TUSD by 10 percent and making it retroactive to August, leaving the district facing an immediate funding loss of $4.9 million.

To be honest, I know nothing about the MAS program and realize any opinion I would offer would be based on hearsay. I suppose if I were Michal Hicks, of the Daily Show interview infamy, hearsay would be more than enough for me to take a position. What I do have an opinion on is the process that resulted in the termination of the program.

It seems that a common theme I’ve heard expressed by Tea Party members is that the government is too big or they feel like they’re under attack from the government. It seems ironic that the Tea Party supported a campaign amounting to a state agency intervening with the operation of a city school district with a duly elected local school board. I suppose government attacks are acceptable as long as it’s your side doing the attacking.

I admit I don’t know much about life in Arizona but the amount of effort that went into terminating a local program that impacts only 300 students seems a bit disproportionate when one considers there are more than a million students[9] enrolled in the public school system of Arizona. One explanation is that immigration and cultural issues must be such highly charged, emotional issues in Arizona that they strike sufficient fear in some compelling them to take elaborate means to achieve an objective.

Had cooler heads prevailed I suspect Huppenthal would not have won his “Stop la Raza” campaign. Had Huppenthal been an educator as befitting a state education superintendent I suspect there may have been efforts to understand the objectives of the MAS program and the criticism of it and develop a program that was acceptable to all. But why compromise when you have the power to terminate?

At the end of the day the Tea Party will see this as a victory. Their strategy was undeniably successful but I wonder how many of them will eventually see this as an Ouroboros moment and recognize they used the power they most fear- government intervention- to achieve their “victory.”


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