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Arizona schools chief says ethnic studies law takes focus off race

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Ethnic studies law racist?
  • Law aims "to get schools to teach kids to treat each other as individuals," he says
  • He says Tucson ethnic studies curriculum "divided the kids into different races"
  • Law bans classes that promote overthrow of U.S., resentment of other racial groups
  • Measure criticized by educators, citizens who say the classes don't promote resentment

(CNN) -- The top proponent of the new Arizona law targeting the state's ethnic studies programs defends the controversial measure, which bans ethnic studies classes that "promote resentment" of other racial groups.

State Schools Superintendent Tom Horne told CNN's "American Morning" on Thursday that the legislation is "designed to get schools to teach kids to treat each other as individuals and not on the basis of what race they were born into."

Horne said he believes that the "fundamental American value is that we are individuals" and "not exemplars of the race we happen to be born into. What's important is what we know, what we can do, what is our character."

The superintendent has been targeting an ethnic studies curriculum in Tucson that he says "divided the kids into different races" -- African studies for African-Americans, "Raza" studies for Latino youths and Asian studies for Asians.

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"In the Raza studies, they were teaching kids that the United States is oppressive, they were making them angry. They used a Marxist book, the 'Pedagogy of the Oppressed,' " he said.

Signed into law on Tuesday, the new legislation forbids classes "designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group" that advocate "the overthrow of the United States government" or "resentment toward a race or class of people." It also forbids classes that "advocate ethnic solidarity" instead of treating pupils as individuals.

The measure has drawn criticism from educators and citizens who say the classes don't promote resentment.

U.N. human rights experts criticized the legislation, saying "everyone has the right to seek and develop cultural knowledge and to know and understand his or her own culture and that of others through education and information."

Kyrsten Sinema, a Democratic state legislator who appeared on "American Morning" with Horne, disagreed with the superintendent's contention that students were divided according to race or ethnicity.

"The fact is very clear that these courses are open to all students. Any student of any race and ethnicity can take an African-American class. Similarly, they can take an Asian-American studies class and learn about the history of Japanese internment camps. That's an important part of the American education system," she said.

Sinema said the courses aren't designed for one race, and they help foster an understanding of different cultures.

"I think it is important for students to learn about their own cultural heritage and to have the opportunity to learn about our cultures and ethnicities that make up the diverse and wonderful state of Arizona," she said.

Horne said the state's social studies standards "require all kids to learn about all different cultures." He said they "shouldn't be ghettoized into certain cultures where they learn only about the culture of the race they have been born into. That's contrary to American values."

The ethnic studies legislation comes on the heels of a new state immigration law that has led to calls to boycott Arizona businesses and the state itself.

The law requires immigrants in Arizona to carry their registration documents at all times and allows police to question individuals' immigration status in the process of enforcing any other law or ordinance.

Critics of the law say it will lead to racial profiling, while supporters say it involves no racial profiling and is needed to crack down on increasing crime involving illegal immigrants.