As one of his final actions as head of Arizona’s public schools, outgoing Superintendent John Huppenthal (R) announced on Friday that the Tucson Unified School District could be stripped of some of its funding in March unless it abandons courses that allegedly violate the state’s ban on “ethnic studies.” Though Friday was Huppenthal’s last day in office, his replacement, Diane Douglas, is a Republican with close ties to several conservative organizations.
Huppenthal reportedly objects to “an introductory course on hip-hop from the African-American perspective and lyrics from the rock band Rage Against the Machine.” The legal basis for his threat to deny funding to the school district if they do not suspend the courses he finds objectionable is a 2010 law placing several limits on what kinds of instruction may be offered in Arizona. That law bans course work that promotes “resentment toward a race or class of people,” that is “designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group,” or that advocates “ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”
School districts that violate this law risk losing “up to ten per cent of the monthly apportionment of state aid that would otherwise be due the school district or charter school.” The law, however, requires school districts to be given sixty days notice before they lose funding, which explains why Huppenthal was not able to take immediate action in this case.
In 2013, a federal district court struck down the provision of the law prohibiting courses “designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group,” holding that it could “chill the teaching of legitimate ethnic studies courses.” Yet, while Judge Wallace Tashima’s opinion also criticized the law for “evincing a misunderstanding of the purpose and value of ethnic studies courses” and for “suggesting an insensitivity to the challenges faced by minority communities in the United States,” he ultimately upheld the bulk of the law, citing the “considerable deference that federal courts owe to the State’s authority to regulate public school education.”
Tashima’s decision is currently on appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which is scheduled to hear oral arguments on the case on January 12.