By Valerie Strauss / The Washington Post
A federal judge this week permanently barred Arizona from enforcing a 2010 law that banned a Mexican American studies program in Tucson schools. Earlier, he had determined the law was unconstitutional and that officials who pushed it had been “motivated by racial animus.”
A. Wallace Tashima, a U.S. circuit court judge sitting in a state district court, issued a ruling this week saying the state cannot enforce the law or threaten to punish the Tucson Unified School District for ignoring it. He ruled that officials cannot enforce because it “was enacted and enforced, not for a legitimate educational purpose, but for an invidious discriminatory racial purpose, and a politically partisan purpose — to shut down the [Tucson Mexican American studies program] — in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution.”
He also ruled that the state superintendent of public instruction and the Arizona State Board of Education are barred from requiring the Tucson district “to prepare or file any reports regarding whether any program, curriculum or course is in compliance” with the law, or conduct any audit or investigation to determine the same.
The program at issue was shut down in 2012 by the Tucson school board after threats by the state to withhold 10 percent of the funding it gave to the district’s schools, which amounted to more than $14 million. It is not clear whether the same program will be resurrected.
The voluntary Mexican American studies program started in the 1970s after Latino and black students filed a class-action school desegregation lawsuit in federal court against the school district. A consent decree stated that the program was a way to help remedy “existing effects of past discriminatory acts or policies.”
The K-12 program’s classes in art, government, history and literature focused on historic and contemporary Mexican American contributions, and was seen as a way to help students see “themselves or their family or their community” in their studies.
In an earlier ruling in August, Tashima noted that students who participated in the program showed higher test scores and graduation and attendance rates and had lower rates of discipline than peers who did not participate.
The program became controversial in 2006 when Dolores Huerta, a Latina labor leader and civic rights activist, gave a speech at Tucson High School and said, “Republicans hate Latinos.”
Tom Horne, then Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction, labeled Huerta’s remarks as “hate speech.” He ordered a deputy to make a rebuttal speech at the school, during which protesting students taped their mouths, turned their backs, raised their fists and walked out of the auditorium.
In his August ruling, Tashima wrote: “Horne, who was in attendance, found the protest ‘rude.’ He concluded that it was organized, and the ‘rudeness’ taught, by teachers in the [Mexican American studies] program.”
That same day at Tucson High, Horne saw a librarian wearing a T-shirt with the acronym “M.E.Ch.A.,” for Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán, a student club with chapters in high schools and colleges across the country. Horne read about the founding of the group in 1969 and concluded it was anti-American.
Horne launched a campaign to eliminate the Mexican American studies program and in 2010, the state legislature passed the law. It prohibited courses “designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group” and those that “promote resentment toward a race or class of people” or that “promote the overthrow of the United States government.”
The Tucson district did not immediately end its program, though opponents stepped up their attacks. John Huppenthal, a former state senator who succeeded Horne as state superintendent, posted a blog comment in October 2011 — which Tashima noted in his August decision — that said: “The Mexican American Studies classes use the exact same technique that Hitler used in his rise to power. In Hitler’s case it was the Sudetenland. In the Mexican American Studies case, it’s Aztlán.”
In his August decision, Tashima ruled that students’ First Amendment rights had been violated by the law because they were denied the “right to receive information and ideas.” He also ruled that their 14th Amendment rights were violated because the decision discriminated against Latinos. “The court concludes that plaintiffs have proven their First Amendment claim because both enactment and enforcement were motivated by racial animus,” he wrote in August.
In the new decision, Tashima wrote that the state has to pay the legal fees of the plaintiffs, though the amount has to be determined.