A federal appeals court on Tuesday ordered a trial to assess whether an Arizona law that was passed to ban a Mexican-American studies curriculum in Tucson's public schools intentionally discriminates against Hispanics.
The 2-1 ruling from a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals largely upheld the constitutionality of Arizona’s ethnic studies law, rejecting arguments brought by plaintiffs that the statute is overly broad and vague. However, the ruling kicked the case back to the Arizona district court in Tucson, saying enough evidence exists to require a trial to show whether the law was “motivated at least in part by a discriminatory intent.”
If there were evidence of discriminatory intent in the law's design or implementation, the measure would be unconstitutional, the ruling says.
“It’s an important decision,” Richard Martinez, one of the lawyers who brought the lawsuit against Arizona officials, told The Huffington Post. “Probably the most important part of this decision is that the state of Arizona will now have to face discovery in a trial to be held accountable for the creation and enactment of this law.”
The decision is a blow for the Arizona conservatives who championed the law in order to eliminate a pioneering Mexican-American studies program in Tucson public schools. The curriculum is credited with boosting the graduation rate and improving student achievement on state tests in the majority-Latino district.
Arizona Republicans, led by then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne and then-State Sen. John Huppenthal, first passed legislation restricting ethnic studies in 2010. The law banned classes that advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government, urge ethnic solidarity, breed ethnic resentment or treat students as members of a group rather than as individuals.
In 2011, Huppenthal took over from Horne as the superintendent of public instruction and found Tucson out of compliance with the law, dismissing a state-commissioned audit of the courses that came to the opposite conclusion and recommended expanding the classes. Opponents of Tucson's program argued that the classes, many of which studied race and socioeconomic inequality, bred resentment against whites -- a charge that participating teachers and students deny. Facing the loss of 10 percent of the district’s funding -- some $14 million per year -- the Tucson school board voted in January 2012 to dismantle the courses.
Since then, a lawsuit brought against Arizona by Tucson students has been making its way through the courts. The three-judge panel on the 9th Circuit heard oral arguments in the case in January. At the time, the judges seemed skeptical of Arizona’s claims that the law wasn’t intended to discriminate against Latino students, even though the vast majority of the students who took the courses were Hispanic and researchers found that the courses boosted the students’ educational attainment.
Martinez applauded Tuesday's decision, which he said showed the courts' power to defend the interests of Hispanics in a state where, he says, they have been targeted by conservative politicians.
“While it has been a long process, the federal courts have the most important forum in Arizona to successfully challenge this unprecedented era of state-mandated racism that Latinos have been confronted with,” Martinez said, citing as other examples the racial profiling litigation against Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the legal challenges to S.B. 1070, the state's notorious immigration crackdown legislation.
It’s not yet clear when the case will go to trial or whether Arizona will attempt to challenge the ruling, Martinez noted.
Reached by phone, Huppenthal called the lawsuit a "distraction" and denied that the ethnic studies law was created or enforced with discriminatory intent.
“Anything like that is going to be hard to prove," Huppenthal told HuffPost. "But regardless of how all that turns out, this is still just a tempest in a tea pot."
Curtis Acosta, a former Tucson teacher who played a key role in developing the controversial curriculum, said that while the years of fighting the state as it tore apart his work had been painful, he felt vindicated by the ruling.
“We’re not there yet, but it seems like the court understood our position, that this was a law based on a discriminatory animus,” Acosta told HuffPost. "We know in our hearts that what we were doing was a beautiful thing, so you can’t let people that are so obstinate and dismissive and downright hateful win the day."
While ethnic studies have stoked controversy and legal wrangling in Arizona, districts across the country have adopted them as a way to boost student achievement in communities of color, where textbooks that emphasize the achievements and writings of European-descended Americans often fail to reflect students’ culture and experiences.
Several districts in Texas, where a slight majority of public school students are Hispanic, have adopted Mexican-American studies curricula. A number of large public school districts in California, including those of San Francisco and Los Angeles, announced plans over the last year to offer ethnic studies.
A bill proposed by California Assemblyman Luis Alejo (D-Salinas) would require all the state’s high schools to offer ethnic studies.
This story has been updated to include comment from Huppenthal.