The Man Behind Arizona’s Anti-Ethnic Studies Law

May 13, 2010 12:09 p.m.

Arizona’s new law restricting ethnic studies is the brainchild of the state’s ambitious top education official, Tom Horne, who is locked in a Republican primary for Attorney General against a prominent ally of hardline Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Horne, the state’s superintendent of public instruction since 2002, has long sought to kill the Tucson school district’s ethnic studies classes, including La Raza studies — and he wrote the bill to target that single program. “It’s just like the old South, and it’s long past time that we prohibited it,” he has said of ethnic studies classes that, he claims, teach Hispanics to resent whites.Horne is now trumpeting the bill, which he wrote and pushed through the legislature, on his attorney general campaign website. His GOP primary opponent, Arpaio-ally Andrew Thomas, is a right-wing champion of anti-immigration policies.

Parallels have been drawn between the new ethnic studies law and the state’s immigration law, signed by Gov. Jan Brewer less than a month before she signed the ethnic studies bill without public comment Tuesday. But the new legislation explicitly targets Hispanics in a way that the immigration bill — which, some proponents argued, was about public safety and jobs — did not.

Bruce Merrill, a state pollster and professor emeritus at Arizona State University, notes that Tucson is heavily Hispanic. “The population has grown very quickly, and I dont know how you can look at the [ethnic studies] law in any other way than being punitive,” he tells TPMmuckraker. “It’s obviously more directed toward Hispanics as a group, keeping them down or being fearful of them, in terms of this growing population threat.”

“This is classic identity politics,” says Rodolfo Espino, a professor at ASU’s School of Politics and Global Studies. “The rhetoric coming from Tom Horne and his supporters is anything detracting from teaching what is American identity should not be supported by taxpayer dollars.”

Espino says there are strikingly different political cultures in Phoenix, Arizona’s capital and largest city, and in Tucson, the second largest city and home of the school district that offers ethnic studies classes.

“Tucson has Hispanic political organization going back decades, a Mexican-American community going back decades,” he says. “It’s a prime target for folks like Tom Horne. They’ve put the cross hairs on that school district

The new law, which you can read here, bars classes that “promote the overthrow of the United States government … promote resentment toward a race or class of people … are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group … [or] advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”

When it takes effect on Dec. 31, districts in violation (as determined by the superintendent or the state board of education) will face a 10% cut of state education funds. The director of the Tucson district’s Mexican-American studies department says the district, which also offers courses in African-American studies, Native American studies and Asian studies, is not in violation and won’t change its offerings.

A very small number of students would be affected by any change. The Los Angeles Times reported that only 3% of the Tucson district’s 55,000 students take ethnic studies classes.

But as a political symbol the bill may have a much greater effect.

Horne’s opponent in the primary for attorney general is former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, who, as a top ally of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, has sterling anti-immigration credentials. As can be seen in this new ad, where Thomas poses in front of an imposing fence on the border — and in both candidates’ pronouncements to get tough on border security — immigration is a key issue in the race.

The ethnic studies law is Horne’s answer to Thomas’ immigration record. Horne’s campaign website currently includes headlines like “Tom Horne Championed Bill to Ban Ethnic Studies” and “Alarming Video Shows a L.A. Teacher Calling for Mexican Revolt in the U.S.” above a picture of Hispanic protesters of the law dressed in quasi-paramilitary garb and bearing pictures of Cesar Chavez.

Espino, the ASU professor, says it’s not just the dynamics of the primary season that explains why the law passed now. Both the immigration and ethnic studies laws were made possible by “an aligning of the planets,” he says.

“What allowed for it to pass is the fact that you finally have a friendly governor in office who is going to sign things like this. [Former Governor Janet] Napolitano was really quick with the veto pen over these sorts of things. Having her gone now has opened the floodgates. A lot of these players feel empowered.”

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