It’s Banned Books Week, which is a perfect time to remember that Arizona banned not just a few books from classrooms in 2011, but an entire curriculum. Despite the fact that the local school board has since rescinded an express restriction on the teaching of seven books, it remains open to question whether the ban on the Mexican-American Studies curriculum’s books has truly been lifted.
In 2010, Arizona conservatives spearheaded the passage of a law targeting a controversial Mexican-American Studies program in Tucson public schools that they said bred resentment against whites. Independent researchers and a state-commissioned audit, by contrast, credited the programs with improving student achievement and fostering critical thinking skills. The law prohibited courses that taught the overthrow of the government or bred ethnic resentment, among other things.
Then-state Sen. John Huppenthal, a Republican, led the drive in the legislature to pass the law. Upon taking office as the state's Superintendent of Public Instruction the following year, he promptly found Tucson in violation of the law and succeeded in pushing the city's school board to shut the program down.
Defenders of the attack on Tucson’s controversial Mexican-American Studies program have long insisted that shutting down the classes and prohibiting its curriculum didn’t constitute a book ban.
The shaky line of reasoning offered by the press office for Tucson Unified School District argued that only seven titles had been removed from classrooms. That shouldn’t be considered a ban, TUSD argued, because those books could still be checked out from libraries. They had been pulled not because TUSD wanted to prohibit them, but because they had been named in a lawsuit against the district. As for the dozens of other books that belonged to the MAS curriculum, TUSD’s official line was that any titles approved by the school board could still be taught in classrooms.
For the seven titles that TUSD administrators pulled from classrooms before the eyes of the students, it’s entirely accurate to say they were “banned from classroom use” from January 2011 until 2013. For the rest of the curriculum, the answer is more complicated, but the words “banned from classroom use” in many cases may still apply -- perhaps even to the once-banned books approved for use last year.
TUSD maintained throughout the controversy that any book approved by the board could still be taught. In 2012, at the time reporting for Fox News Latino, I requested a list of the Tucson’s board-approved books. Almost none of the MAS books were on the approved titles and hardly any of the approved books were written by Latino authors.
So why hadn’t MAS teachers gotten their books approved by the board? Several teachers told me that it was common practice in the district to add supplementary materials to the curriculum without board approval before the controversy over the MAS program erupted.
“In my 23 years here, we’ve never had a discussion here in the English Department about getting books approved by the district,” Tucson High School literature teacher Chris Goldsmith, who did not belong to the MAS program, told me in 2012. “But now because of this law, there’s a hoop they have to jump through.”
The only teachers subjected to the previously unenforced rule were the MAS teachers, nearly all of whom were Latino.
Last year, the school board voted to allow the seven banned titles back into classrooms. This year, the two major forces behind the anti-ethnic studies law -- Huppenthal and Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne -- both got voted out of office. Huppenthal had been outed as an Internet troll who used two pseudonyms to write vitriolic comments on blogs, including one in which he called for all Spanish-language media to be shut down, including most words that appear on the menus of Mexican restaurants. Horne faces a campaign finance investigation and a series of more minor scandals, including rumors of an extramarital affair and an alleged hit-and-run car accident.
But the law the two fallen politicians created remains in effect.
So who will teach the books that belong to the banned MAS curriculum? After dismantling the MAS program, Tucson implemented “culturally relevant courses” in 2013 -- part of a court-ordered requirement in the district's long-standing desegregation case. Notably, the curriculum first proposed for those courses didn’t include any books by Latino authors. Not even the section labeled “U.S. History -- Mexican American Culturally Relevant Viewpoint” contained a single book written by a Hispanic.
The teachers who once taught MAS were told by administrators that they would run afoul of the law if they used the old curriculum or if they were to “direct students to apply MAS perspectives.” With instructions like that, it’s hard to imagine how to teach the dozens of books of Latino literature that once belonged to the MAS curriculum.
There’s a word to describe books that can’t be taught in classrooms: “banned.”