The Arizona Ban on Ethnic Studies

Mira Geffnerby Mira Geffner

At the beginning of January, the Tucson Unified School District bowed to a state ban on ethnic studies education, effectively censoring a list of more than 50 books that were part of the city’s Mexican American Studies curriculum. A few weeks later, I learned about the ban when a classmate posted news about it to our open discussion forum in LIBR 210.

The class topic for that week was ‘Introduction to Reference,’ so we were learning about the obligation “to provide services where people are: physically, culturally, linguistically, educationally, and in many other senses” (Press & Diggs-Hobson, 2005). In this context, it was jarring to read about officials walking into high school classrooms, boxing up books in front of students and teachers, and moving the books to a storage facility. The district has also moved students out of Mexican American Studies electives in Literature, U.S. Government, and American History, and told teachers to cleanse their syllabi and lesson plans of ethnic studies content.

How did this happen?

Banning ethnic education in Arizona was a pet project for former State Superintendent of Education Tom Horne. Horne argued that ethnic studies classes used “an anti-white curriculum to foster social activism” (Winerip, 2012). He championed an end to ethnic studies instruction in Arizona K-12 schools, advocating a change to the state code to outlawing 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;
  • Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals (House Bill 2281).

HB2281 was signed into law in 2010 and the ban on classes that foment insurrection, promote race-based resentment and match the other qualifications went into effect. When Tom Horne moved on to become Arizona Attorney General, John Huppenthal took his place as superintendent of the state’s schools. Huppenthal, also a proponent of the ethnic studies ban, ordered an independent audit of Tucson’s Mexican American Studies (MAS) program, to determine if the program violated the revised state education code (Huicochea, 2012).

The 120-page audit is not uncritical. It questions the appropriateness of some texts in the program, and suggests that others are college-level texts that may not be fit for a high school curriculum. Yet, paragraph after paragraph of the audit’s findings begin with the statement “No evidence exists” that the MAS program violates state law. The auditors found that, as it was designed and taught, the MAS program was in compliance with state law (Cappellucci, 2011).

The program was also helping Tucson students to excel. From 2005-2010—the years for which auditors examined records—seniors who took at least one credit in a Mexican American Studies class had four-year high school graduation rates over 90%. Their peers who took less than one MAS credit had four-year graduation rates in the mid-80s (Cappellucci, 2011).

Yet, despite the evidence, Huppenthal declared the MAS program to be in violation of state law and instructed the Tucson school board to choose between ending the program and forfeiting 10% of its budget. The school board voted four to one to close the program, deciding not to appeal Huppenthal’s decision (Gersema, 2012), and the district released a list of books that were to be removed from classrooms (Biggers, 2012). In defense of its action the school district maintains that copies of the books are available in school libraries. But many of these libraries have no copies available or have a lengthy wait for users to check out a copy (Reese, 2012).

Where does the program stand now?

Some of the Tucson students and their MAS teachers are challenging the ethnic studies ban in court, in Acosta v. Huppenthal (SaveEthnicStudies, n.d.). And students and educators elsewhere in the country are lining up behind them. Students at UT-Austin held a read-in (Blanchard, 2012), and a San Diego chapter of the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA) held a fundraiser in support of the lawsuit (Horn, 2012). Teachers with the Zinn Education Project have begun to teach about the events in Tucson (Menkart, 2012). And the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies has filed a friend of the court brief (Education Letter, 2012) in support of the MAS students and teachers who are contesting the ban.

Banned writers have also come forward to support the students. Matt de la Peña, author of Mexican WhiteBoy, spoke to Tucson students in March and used his speaking fee to buy 240 copies of his books to give to his audience (Winerip, 2012). The librotraficantes, a coalition of banned authors, organized a caravan to bring their books to students in Arizona. Others, including Sherman Alexie, Junot Diaz, Winona LaDuke, Rodolfo Acuña, Laura Esquivel, and Jonathan Kozol, have published statements against the ban.

ALA, REFORMA, and the American Indian Library Association have also come out in defense of the MAS program, and against censorship in Arizona’s K-12 schools. These groups cited the need to provide students with meaningful instruction that teaches them to think critically, and pointed to the proven success of the program. The library groups also noted that many of the banned writers have won awards from ALA and other organizations for their contributions to children’s and adult literature. The Progressive Librarians Guild statement on the issue reads, in part, “given the budgetary problems facing school districts across the nation, TUSD’s decision to sacrifice MAS over funding is understandable, but unacceptable.”

To the defenders of ethnic studies classes, the MAS curriculum simply taught culturally relevant material to students in the district. According to the Curriculum Audit, 60% of Tucson students are Latino, with “24% White/Anglo, 5.6% African American, 3.9% Native American, 2.6% Asian American, and 2.4% Multi-Racial.” The audit also noted that the MAS curriculum and lesson plans were designed to teach critical thinking and that the program seemed to be effective in attaining this goal. MAS classes were electives, and were open to all students (Cappellucci, 2011). Since the program was shut down, students say their classes have become “dry” because teachers have been forced to remake a semester’s worth of lesson plans as they go, and because they are trying to comply with school board policy and not discuss topics like “oppression” in class (Fugitive Scholar, 2012).

Read the national library association resolutions:


American Indian Library Association:


Progressive Librarians Guild:



Biggers, J. (2012). Who’s afraid of “The Tempest”? Salon. Retrieved from

Blanchard, B. (2012). Read-in protests Tucson book ban, ethnic studies cuts. The Daily Texan. Retrieved from

Cappellucci, D.F. (2011). Curriculum Audit of the Mexican American Studies Department Tucson Unified School District. Cambium Learning, Inc. Retrieved from

Fugitive Scholar. (2012). MAS ban in TUSD: Everything has been taken away, and it’s awful [Video file]. Retrieved from

Gersema, E. (2012). Tucson schools suspend ethnic studies program. USA Today. Retrieved from

Horn, J. (2012). 400 protest Arizona ethnic studies ban. The San Diego Union-Tribune. Retrieved from

House Bill 2281. (2010). Retrieved from

Huicochea, A. (2012). Audit report on TUSD ethnic studies delayed. Arizona Daily Star. Retrieved from

Menkart, D. (2012). Teaching about Tucson. Zinn Education Project. Retrieved from

Press, N.O., & Diggs-Hobson, M. (2005). Providing health information to community members where they are: Characteristics of the culturally competent librarian. Library Trends, 53(3), 397-410.

Rabago, V. (2012, March 21). Educators ask federal court to declare Arizona’s ban on ethnic studies unconstitutional. Education Letter, 54.

Reese, D. (2012). Copies of books in TUSD libraries? American Indians in Children’s Literature. Retrieved from

SaveEthnicStudies (n.d.). Retrieved from

Winerip, M. (2012, March 19). Racial lens used to cull curriculum in Arizona. New York Times. Retrieved from


I owe a big “Thank You” to my classmates Marisa Martinez, Rosalinda Gonzalez, and Danielle Wood for sharing information about the ongoing censorship in Arizona. Thanks also to our wonderful instructor, Melissa Wong, for providing us with a forum for discussing non-class matters.


Mira Geffner is a SLIS student. She is interested in taxonomy, virtual reference, patient health information, and the neverending hunt for reliable answers. She lives, reads, and hikes in the San Francisco Bay Area.