Sharply split panel passes bill on Ariz. school 'hate speech'
Capitol Media Services
April 17, 2008


By Howard Fischer

Tucson, Arizona | Published:

PHOENIX — Arizona schools whose courses "denigrate American values and the teachings of Western civilization" could lose state funding under the terms of legislation approved Wednesday by a state House panel.

SB 1108 also would bar teaching practices that "overtly encourage dissent" from those values, including democracy, capitalism, pluralism and religious toleration. Schools would have to surrender teaching materials for review by the state school superintendent, who could withhold state aid of districts that broke the law.

Another section of the bill would bar public schools, community colleges and universities from allowing organizations to operate on campus if they are "based in whole or in part on race-based criteria." Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, said that provision is aimed at MEChA — Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán — a student group he described as racist.

The 9-6 vote by the Appropriations Committee sends the measure to the full House.

The legislation appears aimed largely at the Tucson Unified School District, whose "Raza Studies" program has annoyed some people. Tucson resident Laura Leighton read lawmakers sections of some books used in classrooms. She said the sections promote hatred.

If the proposal becomes law, however, it would have a statewide reach. And that concerned even some lawmakers who voted for it, saying the language of what would and would not be prohibited is "vague."

Tucson school officials have said the program under attack has helped Hispanic students improve their academic achievement by building pride and focusing on their cultural heritage.

But Pearce, who wrote the measure, said the program doesn't stop there. He said taxpayers are funding "hate speech paid for by tax dollars."

And Pearce said some of the teachings amount to "sedition" by suggesting that the current border between the United States and Mexico should disappear, with Mexico — and Hispanics — taking over the American Southwest.

Leighton had specific problems with a text titled "Occupied America," a book touted by its publisher as examining Chicano history from the coming of the Spanish in 1519.

She read one line that said "kill the gringos." Another talked about a plan to take back the U.S. Southwest and deport all the Europeans. A closer look at the book, though, showed the line about the gringos was a quote from someone who was referenced. And that plan to take back the area was not urging current action but instead describing one pushed by Mexico in 1915.

Leighton, however, said she and others who reviewed the course work believe it is unacceptable.

"We find hate and revolution is being taught in their books," she told legislators. "We found a denigration and disparagement of American values, and a subversion of our history."

Anna Graves said she believes schools are promoting a double standard with such programs.

"If we were to have a group of white citizens teaching white culture only for the white children, it would be totally and absolutely inappropriate in a country that is a country of diversity," said Graves, a Mexican immigrant who is now a U.S. citizen.

"I absolutely deplore people who come from another country and do not want anything to do with the culture, the language or anything that has to do with the government," Graves continued. She said such border crossers are in this country to send back money to relatives elsewhere and "are not here to provide loyalty."

That kind of attitude ignores the United States as a "culture of diversity," said Rep. Peter Rios, D-Dudleyville.

"What is the downside of students' learning about their culture along with the American culture, value and mores?" Rios asked. Graves said nothing — as long as it's not just Hispanic culture being taught.

Graves said it's the job of parents to teach children about their own ethnic background and culture.

"Not everybody had what you had," Rios responded. "So some of these children have to pick up some of this positive self-image building at the school, because they're not getting it at home; they're not getting it in the barrios of the neighborhood."

And Rios suggested there was a reason to have programs aimed at teaching Hispanic youngsters about their heritage.

"At the end of the day, we all know the history books are written by the victors," he said. "And we didn't win too many of our battles coming from a Hispanic culture."

Pearce said nothing in the legislation precludes teaching about various cultures. What he opposes, he said, are the "hateful, despicable comments" becoming part of public education.

What would become illegal, Pearce said, are "race-based" classes.

"Nobody would stand here, I suspect, and try to defend the KKK teachings at a Tucson school or anywhere else," he said.

Lawmakers should butt out of the controversy, said House Minority Leader Phil Lopes, D-Tucson. He said decisions of curriculum should be left to local school boards.

But Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, said lawmakers are entitled to regulate the use of tax money taken from Arizonans and "demand that our publicly funded education teach and inculcate our youth, our children, with the values that make America what it is, the greatest and most free nation in the world."

Biggs, however, conceded that the language describing what would be prohibited is "somewhat vague" and probably needs work.

It's more than vague, said Rep. David Schapira, D-Tempe. He questioned, for example, what it means to "overtly encourage dissent" from the values of American democracy and Western civilization.

Lobbyists representing school boards and superintendents signed in to indicate opposition to the measure but did not speak. Nor did Sam Polito, who lobbies for TUSD, saying it made no sense to try to derail Pearce's bill in a committee he chairs.

● Reporter Rhonda Bodfield contributed to this story.

Local views

"To be honest with you, in my 24 years in the district, I have never had a parent complaint about, or had to deal with an issue of, a teacher who was degrading Western values. I guess legislators have the right to introduce bills, but I'm not sure it's necessary."

— Nicholas Clement, superintendent of the Flowing Wells Unified School District


"Our founders came here for the opportunity of new hope. They were seeking the ability to call out and live their own culture and their own religions and at the same time, to develop their own identity. If we are talking about those things as core American values, and our children in our courses are living out these same values, I don't see any problem."

— Augustine Romero, senior academic director for ethnic studies with the Tucson Unified School District


"We surely have bigger things to be focusing on at this time in our state. It's time to get on with the larger issues facing education and get on with addressing the state budget deficit."

— Steve Courter, a teacher and president of the Tucson Education Association, the union that represents TUSD teachers


"It would definitely affect our teaching along the way, because the next thing we'd get is a handbook that tells us, 'These are the things you can talk about and these are the things you cannot talk about.' "

— Rosalva Mesa, first-grade teacher at Blenman Elementary School


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