Alyssa Hadley Dunn, a clinical assistant professor of urban teacher education in the College of Education at Georgia State University, sent me a note about a “teach-in” at GSU to make people aware of the ban on the teaching of ethnic studies in Tucson schools, a decision based on a controversial — and some say overreaching — new Arizona law.
I have spent the morning looking at the law, its origins and the public debate around its passage. I agree that the broad language of the law creates minefields for teachers. And I also suspect that the courts will be busy for several years dealing with the fallout from its four provisions.
The new Arizona law prohibits instruction that: a) promotes the overthrow of the United States Government; b) promotes resentment toward a race or class of people; c) is designed primarily for people of a particular ethnic group and d) advocates ethnic solidarity instead of treatment of pupils as individuals. Schools in violation risk losing state funding.
A group of teachers in Arizona has sought to overturn the law, saying in their motion: The prohibitions are too vague and broad and violate the first amendment rights of teachers, schools and students. Since every provision of the law violates the constitution, the motion calls for the law to be overturned in its entirety. It is fundamentally argued that this law is designed to limit the material and ideas allowed in the classroom and thus restrict the first amendment rights of teachers to teach and students to learn.
The law has now led the Tucson schools to ban a popular Mexican American Studies program begun in 1998. At the middle school level, the Mexican American Studies classes were electives and included literature, mathematics, Chicano studies and an independent study course. At the high school level, MAS classes were offered in literature, American history, American government/social justice, and Chicana/Art, and could be used to satisfy graduation requirements.
In a recent 37-page decision, an administrative law judge upheld the decision to end the Mexican American Studies program, ruling that it violated Arizona’s new law. For balance, you can read a critique of that legal ruling here.
Here is what Dr. Dunn sent me about the effort of Georgia educators to make people aware of what is happening:
Last week, the Tucson Unified School District, after a long legal battle with the state, decided to prohibit the teaching of ethnic studies, specifically Mexican American studies, in their public schools. The argument was that such courses encouraged divisiveness, not unity. Teachers were prohibited from teaching anything where “race, ethnicity, or oppression was a central theme.”
Events are still unfolding and the district asserts that books were not officially “banned,” but what we know for certain is that students watched as classroom books were confiscated during class, boxed up, and brought to a district storage facility. These confiscated items included award-winning Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, major contributions to the Chicano(a) studies movement, texts on critical race theory, and Rethinking Columbus by Rethinking Schools.
The issue is about more than censored books; through this ban, Tucson is also banning certain histories and pedagogies. We believe that classes like this often provide students with their only glimpse into the history of their people. Education about multiculturalism combats exactly the type of fear and divisiveness that they are spreading with the ban. Ethnic studies and multicultural education are about empowering students to recognize histories of power, privilege, and oppression and then acting in socially just ways to change their worlds. They are not meant to pit “one group against another,” but to demonstrate the interconnectedness of humanity without whitewashing history.
As educators in Georgia, we want to address the underlying issues at work in this legislation and inform local teachers, professors, students, families, legislators, and community members about the implications for Georgian education. We have planned “Teach, Think, Do: A Teach-in on Tucson” for Saturday from 11 a.m.- 2 p.m. at Georgia State University’s College of Education (30 Pryor St., Atlanta).
At this free community event, participants will engage in dialogue about the legislation, hear from “virtual keynote guests” via webcast (including author Jeff Biggers and Tucson teachers and students), and work in small break-out sessions to plan curriculum, discuss the censored texts, and plan legislative action. Free lunch and materials will be provided. Event coordinators include faculty and students from Georgia State, Emory University, Clayton State, Kennesaw State, and Georgia Gwinnett; teachers from local districts; and members of community groups focused on education. More information can be found on our Facebook page.
Along with further dialogue about censorship, academic freedom, and multicultural education, we hope this first event can help ensure that Georgia schools remain safe and inclusive places for all students to learn in ways that honor their voices, share their histories, and encourage them to be change agents for social justice.
(For more information on the ban, check out these responses from writer Jeff Biggers, Rethinking Schools editor Bob Peterson, and Tucson teacher Curtis Acosta. Also see this coverage from Democracy Now and the resolution from the American Library Association.)
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog