Conservatives hoping to shut down Mexican-American studies in Arizona are inadvertently helping spread ethnic studies curricula across the country.
California Assemblyman Luis Alejo (D) proposed a law last week that would require public schools in the state to offer elective courses in ethnic studies for students in grades seven through 12, a potentially trailblazing move toward changing the way America educates an increasingly diverse student body.
Alejo told The Huffington Post his actions were motivated in part by a desire for his state to stake out a path opposite from that taken by Arizona, where the legislature passed a law in 2010 to shut down a Mexican-American studies curriculum in Tucson public schools.
"This was in direct response to what was happening in Tucson," Alejo told The Huffington Post. "We're not talking about banning courses ... Ethnic studies are important and should be available at earlier grades."
He pointed out that he filed his bill just days before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in a lawsuit seeking to overturn the Arizona law.
Having taken an ethnic studies course himself as a college student, Alejo says he knows the benefits firsthand. He says offering courses where Latino, black and Asian-American students can learn more about their heritage and read works by people of similar backgrounds will help engage students and show that their schools value them.
"If we are really serious about preparing our students for jobs in the 21st century and to be successful in college, we have to have a high school curriculum that reflects the diversity of all our populations," Alejo told The Huffington Post.
In 2013-2014, Latinos made up a majority of the state's student body, at 53.3 percent, according to the state Department of Education. Whites were the second-largest group at 25 percent, followed by Asians at 8.7 percent.
The proposal marks a more ambitious step for Alejo, who last year authored a bill that would have mandated that the state Department of Education commission a study on the benefits of creating an ethnic studies curriculum.
But a recent flurry of activity at the local level urged Alejo to propose a farther-reaching bill.
In July, El Rancho Unified School District outside Los Angeles became the state's first to require that students take an ethnic studies course to graduate. Los Angeles Unified School District followed in December. In the same month, San Francisco Unified School District passed a resolution requiring local high schools to offer ethnic studies classes next school year.
San Francisco already offers ethnic studies courses at five high schools as part of a pilot program the district began six years ago, according to San Francisco Gate. Local officials say the program has helped to reduce unexcused absences and improve students' grades, the site reports.
Educators and activists in Texas have also worked to implement ethnic studies courses in local districts, after the State Board of Education declined to create a statewide curriculum last year.
Nevertheless, Alejo said passing the legislation will be challenging because he'll have to convince the legislature that the courses will be worth the cost it takes to develop and implement them.
"I knew it was going to be a heavy lift," Alejo said. "But for me it's not a question of if we're going to have ethnic studies, but when."
Conservative lawmakers in Arizona passed a state law in 2010 banning courses that promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, foster ethnic solidarity, breed ethnic resentment or treat students as members of a group rather than individuals. Education officials used the law to shut down a Mexican-American studies curriculum in January 2012 that conservatives said politicized students and bred resentment against whites. Independent researchers said the classes fostered critical thinking skills and boosted student achievement.
"I think that what was going on in those classrooms was just offensive," the outgoing head of the Arizona Department of Education, John Huppenthal, told HuffPost last week.
Earlier this month, Huppenthal issued a letter saying that a "culturally relevant" curriculum implemented in Tucson last year also violates the ethnic studies law. Huppenthal, who helped pass the law in 2010 while serving as a state senator, cited the teaching of Mexican history, Rage Against the Machine lyrics and an essay by KRS-One as violations.