01/31/2011 02:20 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Arizona Ethnic Studies Should Promote Collaboration, Not Conflict

Last Tuesday night, in a show of bipartisanship, Arizona Republican Rep. Jeff Flake and Democrat Rep. Raul Grijalva saved an empty seat for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords during the 2011 State of the Union address. As the president spoke eloquently about the Tucson shooting, I found this simple gesture quite touching.

Yet it saddens me that Arizonans continue to live in a climate of intolerance and fear -- even in Tucson, which lies in the heart of Rep. Giffords' district. Consider that effective this year, ethnic studies are illegal in the Grand Canyon State, under the provisions of HB 2281.

HB 2281 is the brainchild of Tom Horne, Arizona's new Attorney General. As State Superintendent of Schools, he wrote the law because he didn't like the Mexican-American Studies classes offered by the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD). Horne says they promote racism and encourage students to feel oppressed.

As of now, no Arizona school district may offer classes that "promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, promote resentment towards a race or class of people, are designed for pupils of a particular ethnic group, or advocate ethnic solidarity." Any district found in violation of this law can lose up to 10% of their annual state funding. TUSD has until March 1st to end the classes or risk the loss of $15 million in funding.

While Horne has already declared the TUSD to be in violation of HB 2281, I wonder about the practical applications of this law. Since it is now illegal in Arizona to teach classes that "promote resentment towards a race or class of people," does that mean Dostoyevsky and Dickens are off limits? Their works seethe with class resentment and struggle. How are Arizona's minority students supposed to learn about slavery and the WWII internment camps without any feeling any "resentment"?

The TUSD Board of Education maintains that its curriculum complies with HB 2281, and that students who take ethnic studies courses improve academically. Although the TUSD has written the State Board of Curriculum offering to collaborate on issues with the Mexican-American Studies program, they have, so far, received only threats and rhetoric in response.

Unfortunately, I'm not surprised. HB 2281 is a overreaching effort to inject nativist fears into the classroom. It is also worrisome, for as we've seen with immigration measures, laws that begin in Arizona have inspired similar legislation in other states.

Horne has said, "It is fundamentally wrong to divide students up according to their racial group, and teach them separately." I agree. Yet the TUSD Mexican-American Studies classes are open to all, and are taken by non-Hispanics. What's more, the TUSD offers courses in African-American Studies and Native-American Studies, and the state is not threatening action against them.

I don't understand why Arizona lawmakers are so concerned with whether Mexican-American students are learning about Cesar Chavez. Their state ranks second in highest student-teacher ratio, according to the National Education Association. It ranks last in per pupil expenditure.

Indeed, in a state that is one-third Hispanic, what's wrong with pupils learning about Chavez? All students should have the right to learn about their heritage. And if there are problems with the ethnic studies courses, the classes should be reformed, not banned.

As Arizona Attorney General, it is Tom Horne's duty to enforce the laws of his state. But nowhere in HB 2281 does it say that he must eliminate a course of study. Surely, in light of recent events, he can find a solution that balances his concerns with those of the TUSD. Abolishing the Mexican-American Studies program sends students a doubly wrong message -- that the contributions of Latinos do not matter, and that conflict is the way to resolve a situation. I hope Horne will reconsider his misguided, aggressive approach, for it should not take another tragedy to bring Arizonans together.