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11 Tucson teachers sue Arizona over new 'anti-Hispanic' schools law

By Michael Martinez and Thelma Gutierrez, CNN
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Ethnic studies banned in Arizona schools
  • There's another federal lawsuit involving Latinos and a new Arizona law
  • Tucson schools have been teaching Mexican-American studies since 1998
  • Tucson school system faces a $3-million-a-month sanction unless it ends program
  • The sanction comes under a new state law championed by the state's education head

Tucson, Arizona (CNN) -- Eleven Tucson, Arizona, educators sued the state board of education and superintendent this week for what the teachers consider an "anti-Hispanic" ban looming on Mexican-American studies.

The suit comes in a state already roiled by a controversial immigration law that is being challenged in court.

On Tuesday, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne defended the new law, which will go into effect December 31. The law authorizes the superintendent to stop any ethnic studies classes that "promote the overthrow of the United States government ... promote resentment toward a race or class of people ... (or) advocate ethnic solidarity instead of treatment of pupils as individuals."

Horne said he would seek the first-ever ban in Tucson for its "raza studies" program, now called Mexican-American studies. Raza means "the race" in Spanish.

The law allows the state to withhold 10 percent of monthly aid -- which would amount to $3 million a month for Tucson Unified School District No. 1.

Horne has objected to the Tucson program partly because the district uses the textbook "Occupied America: A History of Chicanos" by Rodolfo F. Acuna, a professor of Chicana/o Studies at California State University at Northridge, according to the lawsuit filed Monday. Students learn how the American Southwest once belonged to Mexico, but Horne objects to the use of the word "occupied."

"In the lawsuit, they claimed that this legislation constituted discrimination," Horne said. "It's exactly backwards. The idea behind the legislation is that students need to treat each other as individuals ... and not what race they were born into."

Horne, whose eight-year term limit will force him to step down next January 3, takes credit for the new law's passage. Horne is now running as a Republican for attorney general in November's elections, facing Democrat Felecia Rotellini, and he is a prominent supporter of the state's controversial immigration crackdown that's also being challenged in federal court on constitutional grounds.

The 11 educators in Tucson's Mexican-American Studies Department are asking a federal judge to stay the new schools law, passed last April, because it violates free speech, equal protection and due process, the suit contends.

The program, created in 1998 and initially called "Mexican American/Raza Studies," has been effective in reducing dropout rates among Latino students, discipline problems, poor attendance and failure rates, the educators say.

The instructor likened the curriculum to university departments devoted to African-American or Middle Eastern studies.

The Tucson district renamed the program Mexican-American Studies last October because of "Horne's constant criticism and disparaging comments about the word 'raza,' " the lawsuit said.

The new law, however, doesn't prohibit courses required under federal law for Native American pupils or the instruction about the Holocaust or other genocides or historical oppression against a group of people based on ethnicity, race or class.

In their lawsuit, the teachers contend the law "was enacted by the legislature of the state of Arizona and signed into law by (Gov. Jan) Brewer as a result of racial bias and anti-Hispanic beliefs and sentiments."

While Horne said he doesn't oppose history lessons about how Southwestern states such as Arizona and California were originally part of Mexico, he claimed the Tucson district was teaching that history in an objectionable manner.

"They teach them that this is occupied territory that should be given back," Horne said.

But on a recent day at Pueblo High School in Tucson, a reporter asked the mostly Latino students in an American history class -- part of the ethnic studies program -- whether anyone believed the Southwest should be returned to Mexico.

No one raised a hand.

When asked if the region belonged in the United States, all students raised their hands.

Teacher Sally Rusk said she never taught that the Southwest should return to Mexico. "No, absolutely not," she said. "This is the U.S. Do any of the textbooks advocate that? No! No!"

While the law targets courses that "are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group," one African-American student in the class, senior Olivia Payne, took exception with that description of the program.

"I get really emotional because this class helped me a lot," she said, becoming tearful. "We're a family. We're one, and it's teaching us we can make a difference in this country. I don't want this class to be taken away."