What Arizona's Ban on Ethnic Studies Says about America

At a recent Capitol Hill forum on Arizona's ethnic studies ban, a young Latina, Diana Villatoro, all of thirteen years old spoke passionately about how ethnic studies inspire her classmates and teach a powerful sense of belonging in their community and their country, America. After her speech, her peers from the Cesar Chavez Public Charter School and Hill staffers in attendance talked at length about the changing demography of our country, politics and educational empowerment.

The conversation underlined a simple fact: the Arizona ethnic studies ban has more to do with the politics of our countries changing demography and political power then they do with educational attainment and what is best for the future of the state. America's demography is changing, a fact that the Arizona state legislature is clearly struggling with. The reality is the ethnic studies ban in Arizona is nothing more then a byproduct of a state legislature which has become adept at manufacturing crises in order to win elections. This time it is at the expense of the education of Arizona's future workforce.

Latino children are the single largest segment of Arizona's future workforce yet they have the lowest graduation rates in the state. Between 2001 and 2010, Arizona's non-Latino population grew by 17.3%. The state's Latino growth rate was 46.3%, they now comprise nearly one third of the state's population and about 47% of its children under 19. Today only 69 percent of Latinos receive their High School diplomas. In a state where 30.8 percent of the population is over the age of 62 years old, can the state legislature really afford to eliminate programs which are keeping Latino students in school?

The Mexican American Studies (MAS) program was created by a blue ribbon panel to increase the graduation rates of low income Latino students. There is strong statistical evidence that the MAS program benefited participants, the majority of which were Latino and low income. Providing students a way to interact with notions of identity, history and culture in an academic setting clearly improved the graduation rates of low income Hispanic students.

The state legislature contends that these programs are indoctrinating students with anti-American biases but there has been no such evidence to support this claim. The state legislature also says that the MAS graduation rates do not differ from that of the general population. A Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) analysis revealed the MAS programs improved the graduation rates of low income Hispanics.

"the Mexican American Studies courses have benefited the district's financially poorest students, who graduated at higher rates than students in similar economic situations who didn't enroll in them. Additionally, the program's literature and social-studies classes have helped students improve AIMS reading and writing scores."

Bottom line these programs help the educational attainment of those that need it. If there is a crisis, it is in the leadership of the Arizona State legislature, which has chosen to manufacture a controversy, when the focus should be on how best to educate Arizona's future workforce. Sean Arce, the former director of the MAS program at TUSD, puts it this way:

"Our own state officials are denouncing academic achievement, denouncing higher graduation rates and instead spreading this discourse to the public that we are anti-American, anti-white. There is nothing further from the truth."

Back at the forum on Capitol Hill, the students are wrapping up their speeches. Another child, steps to the microphone she wonders: "America is full of people with different backgrounds. If learning ethnic studies is anti-American, then what does it truly mean to be American?" The country is changing, our future labor force is also in the midst of an evolution. What we need are solutions which better harness this new wave of workers. How we negotiate these changes speaks volumes about what America truly stands for. This is the question the Arizona state legislature would be good to answer.