Last week, the outgoing head of Arizona's Department of Education issued a letter saying some Tucson public schools were illegally promoting ethnic solidarity and the overthrow of the U.S. government by teaching Mexican history, rock lyrics and a rapper's essay.
For John Huppenthal, it was the final official act in a long battle against ethnic studies courses that he and other conservatives argue have politicized the classroom and bred resentment against whites. As a state senator in 2010, he helped pass a law against ethnic studies. As Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction for the last four years, he helped dismantle a Mexican-American studies curriculum in Tucson that independent researchers credit with boosting student achievement and graduation rates.
Next week the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit will hear a challenge to the ethnic studies law brought by students of that prohibited Tucson curriculum. A federal judge largely upheld the legislation in 2013.
Tucson schools Superintendent H.T. Sanchez told HuffPost that he requested a meeting with Huppenthal a month before the letter of noncompliance was issued and that Huppenthal never responded. "We sent stacks of documents for their review," Sanchez said. "We also scanned them and posted them on our webpage so anyone could see them. ... That's how willing we are to comply."
Ahead of the court date, Huppenthal spoke with HuffPost about the controversial law, why he found certain courses illegal and why he wrote anonymous comments calling for the elimination of the Spanish media in the United States.
Do you really think that the teacher who was teaching the Rage Against the Machine song that you cited in the letter of noncompliance was promoting the overthrow of the U.S. government?
Let me step back from anything specific like that to just talking generally about what’s taken place over the last year. We had a series of announced and unannounced visits by people going in and observing the classrooms. The people who were making those visits were people who have impeccable academic credentials, who have won awards as principals and superintendents. They are the ones that were issuing these findings. It’s not me per se.
Over time they have had issues -- not only about the issues of state law, but of the quality of the teaching going on in the classroom itself. So there’s just concerns about a broad array of issues, about being able to have transparent teaching in these classrooms. People in the community should be able to look at the curriculum, should be able to take a look at the lesson plans and know what’s going on in those classrooms.
But again, now that we’ve covered the context -- do you think that the teacher who was teaching the Rage Against the Machine song was promoting the overthrow of the U.S. government?
I’m not going to comment on anything so specific. I’ll talk about the process by which we’ve got to where we’re at in our concerns.
Do you still feel confident in the law that was used to shut down the Mexican-American studies curriculum in Tucson? Do you still think that program presented a danger to students?
I don't know that it presented a danger to students. I think that what was going on in those classrooms was just offensive. I’m not somebody who's opposed to ethnic studies. I have an African-American advisory committee with African-Americans who have been active in the civil rights movement. My agency developed a [fourth-grade] ethnic studies curriculum under their guidance.
I think also that ethnic studies shouldn’t be isolated for people of the ethnicity. Every student in our schools should be learning about African-American involvement in history, Hispanic-American involvement in history. I think ethnic studies are for every child. It’s the history of our country, it’s the history of our state.
Some of the teachers of the prohibited classes say that you and other opponents focused too much on picking out what appeared to be inflammatory passages of certain books rather than focusing on the pedagogy, on the way the material was taught. What would you say to a criticism like that?
We have deep concerns about the way the stuff is being taught. Our observers going in there are high-quality superintendents and principals. These are not people who were picked because they’re conservatives. They’re actually liberals. They went in there, and from their background as great teachers, their background as great principals, they have a lot of concerns about the quality of the teaching that’s going on in these classrooms.
Tucson Unified School District has unique management and political issues that are resulting in these outcomes. They don’t have a cohesive school board that backs up their superintendents. They’ve burned through two superintendents in a row that were among the top 10 superintendents ever in the state of Arizona. When you have leaders of that caliber who can’t make it happen for a school district, there’s something fundamentally wrong going on. The ethnic studies issues are just a symptom of a deeper problem in the school district.
When the Mexican-American studies curriculum was shut down, one of the things that you and other opponents said was that it bred resentment against whites, against Anglos. Yet later it was reported that you had used pseudonyms to make strident comments on blogs, including calling for the elimination of the Spanish language from the United States, the elimination of the Spanish-language media. Do you worry that you’ve bred resentment against Hispanics?
You have to know a little bit about my background to understand that that comment was anti-racist. I grew up in the south side of Tucson. If you dropped a pin on the highest crime, highest poverty area of Tucson, it would land right on my old elementary school. Highest minority -- you would land right on the elementary school that I attended as a child. [Huppenthal then listed off a number of fellow students with Hispanic last names.] Every one of us came from the poorest area of Tucson to graduate from college. It was because we all had a profound grasp of English.
It's the grasp of the English language that is going to enable these kids to go on to success, to graduate from college. And that was the basis of that comment. It was a desire for these kids to be successful. That comment's been completely misinterpreted to the opposite of what its intent was.
So you stand by it?
I stand by it in the proper context. The Hispanics that have been enormously successful here in Arizona -- when you listen to them, they have better English than I do. What I'm concerned about is these kids being able to get the English-language skills they need to go on and be successful in life. I’m concerned about balkanization -- that we can develop neighborhoods where kids can grow up without learning English and lose out on all the opportunities that life offers.
I don't know that I would say I stand by that comment, because you're then going to try to attribute that to the negative aspects, to the stereotype of a conservative Republican -- 'he must be racist.' Well, I'm not. I don't have a racist bone in my body. And it's my aspiration for these kids that leads me to believe that they need a saturated English environment so that they can be successful.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.