Secretive raza studies in Tucson district need close look
Arizona Republic
Jan. 20 2008

They don't teach much about history these days in public schools. But in some school districts, like the Tucson Unified School District, they do emphasize a certain sort of history.

It's a history program that its critics, some of whom with firsthand knowledge of how it is taught, contend often dwells on bitterness and exclusion. On oppression and unfairness. And on a sort of tribalism that often teaches that the American system is rigged against Hispanics and, likely, other minorities.

And one other thing. It's a history program whose zealous advocates object to "outsiders" knowing much about it. You get your knuckles rapped hard in Tucson just for asking questions about what this program is all about.

In November, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne asked officials at TUSD for information about its ethnic-studies program, an elective curriculum that, according to its director, serves about 1,700 students daily in TUSD high schools and middle schools.

Horne is no fan of minority-studies programs. As a school-board member in Paradise Valley some years ago, he helped block a women's-studies program there. Of ethnic-studies programs specifically, Horne said they "promote ethnic chauvinism."

"They're against all that America stands for," he told me.

So, is that clear enough? Horne dislikes public-school programs that promote grievance and separation.

But when Horne asked the Tucson district in November for information about the program, he wasn't looking to shut it down. He wanted to know about it. He wanted to have a look at the prescribed reading materials, the teacher manuals and the course syllabi. He wanted to know what the program, also known as raza studies, was all about. And he asked the district to forward the information to him.

Now, whatever one thinks of Tom Horne - and, heaven knows, he has his critics - he is the elected superintendent of public education in Arizona. In the hierarchy of pubic education, that may not mean he can dictate to school districts what their various elective programs can or cannot include. Those decisions usually are left to school districts. Like TUSD.

But is it unreasonable that the state superintendent of public instruction know about those programs? It strikes me that a lot of people would think Horne remiss if he didn't know what public schools are teaching their students.

But in Tucson, Horne was told, quite explicitly, to "butt out." He was told it was none of his business what raza-studies teachers were imparting to 1,700 public-school students every school day.

About a week after Horne made his request - and well before the district complied with it - the super's Freedom of Information Act request became a Tucson news story.

The local newspapers loosed a full-throated declaration that Horne has no business knowing anything about the Mexican-American/Raza Studies Department, the program's official title.

Said one Tucson newspaper in an editorial published Nov. 26: "Memo to Tom Horne: Butt out."

Said another local paper, also in an editorial: "Horne has overstepped by asking for information about the (TUSD's) ethnic-studies programs."

Overstepped by . . . asking for information?

Now, I've known a lot of political buttinskies in my time. Such people, generally, are busybodies who have no particular mandate regarding the subject that obsesses them. Nor any special insight into it. How the state superintendent of public instruction qualifies as a buttinsky regarding the curricula of an Arizona public school district mystifies me.

The district and its media allies are confusing, perhaps intentionally, knowledge with control. They point out, correctly, that the district is governed by its own elected board and that Horne has no authority to dictate what elective programs it offers. What Horne does have is a bully pulpit. And it is that pulpit which so terrifies the ethnic-studies advocates.

One of the editorials noted that the raza-studies program is "clearly what TUSD's kids, parents and educators want." Is it? How can anything about the program be "clear" if the district is so secretive about the content and delivery of its program that it resents the state superintendent knowing about it?

Since Horne's request made Tucson headlines, a number of people with firsthand knowledge of the district's program have stepped forward.

In an op-ed published in the Arizona Daily Star on Dec. 5, Horne noted one of them, an English teacher at Tucson's Cholla High School, who, according to Horne, was denigrated as "the White man's agent" when he dared to criticize elements of the raza studies. Very academic and supportive program, this one.

There are others who have stepped forward to say the things that TUSD and its allies would rather not be said. I'll write about them soon.

Reach the author at or at 602-444-8883.