Federal judge says Arizona can’t ban Mexican-American studies classes in public schools

Federal judge says Arizona can’t ban Mexican-American studies classes in public schools
A federal judge has ruled that an Arizona law prohibiting public schools from teaching Mexican-American studies is unconstitutional. / AFP PHOTO / David GANNON (Photo credit should read DAVID GANNON/AFP/Getty Images)

A federal judge ruled Wednesday that the state of Arizona cannot prohibit local public schools from teaching courses in Mexican-American studies. The ruling, issued by district judge A. Wallace Tashima, invalidated a Arizona Revised Statutes § 15-112, which prohibited school districts in the state from teaching any course that promotes the overthrow of the United States government, promotes resentment toward a race or class of people, or is “designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.” Any school district found to be in violation of the statute would lose up to 10 percent of its state funding, under the law.

The statute was passed in 2010 by the Republican-controlled legislature and signed into law by former Gov. Jan Brewer (R).

Judge Tashima was appointed to the bench in 1980 by then-President Jimmy Carter. He was subsequently elevated to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1995 by then-President Bill Clinton. Tashima heard this case in the United States District Court for the District of Arizona sitting by designation.

Plaintiffs from the Tucson Unified School District — which has a majority Latino student population — filed suit to block enforcement of the statute when after the school district shut down its Mexican-American studies program so as not to lose state funding. In his ruling, Tashima ruled that the law violated the First and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and that it served no “legitimate educational purpose.” The judge further declared that the law was passed for an “invidious discriminatory racial purpose” and a “politically partisan purpose.”

Tashima’s brief ruling did not otherwise even purport to explain how or why the Arizona statute in question violated the First or 14th Amendments to the Constitution.

As the Washington Post noted, Tucson’s Mexican-American studies program was initiated in the 1970s as part of a consent decree the Tucson USD entered into during the course of a school desegregation lawsuit. The program became controversial locally when a Latina labor activist gave a 2006 speech at Tucson High School that declared, in part, that “Republicans hate Latinos.” The Arizona superintendent of public instruction, Tom Horne, learned of the speech and began a campaign to have the program eliminated. It was largely through Horne’s efforts that the Arizona statute was eventually enacted into law in 2010.

In his order, Tashima prohibited both local and state officials from enforcing any portion of the law or even auditing classes to determine compliance with the law.