Arizona Unions Aid Educators’ Fight Against the State’s Anti-Ethnic Studies Law

Seth Sandronsky

Rebekah Friend, executive director and secretary-treasurer of the Arizona AFL-CIO.

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Last year, Arizona’s legislature passed the GOP-backed House Bill 2281, which threatens to outlaw the Mexican-American Studies Department (MASD) in the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD), which is more than 60 percent Hispanic. The bill took effect on December 31 — more than two months after 11 TUSD employees filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the H.B. 2281

The majority of the plantiffs are unionists, and as the battle over the law heats up, unions and labor federations are lending their support to the pushback.

The controversial new law states:

A school district or charter school in this state shall not include in its program of instruction any courses or classes that include any of the following:

1. Promote the overthrow of the United States government.
2. Promote resentment toward a race or class of people.
3. Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.
4. Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.

The federal lawsuit filed by educators on October 18 alleges that H.B. 2218 — which effectively prohibits a specific ethnic-studies program created and sustained with input from the community — violates the First Amendment (free speech) and Fourteenth Amendment (equal protection) of the U.S. Constitution. The defendants in the lawsuit are Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, the Arizona State Board of Education and the Arizona State Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Six of the plaintiffs are MASD teachers who are members of the Tucson Education Association (TEA) union, which is affiliated with the Arizona Education Association and the National Education Association.

Luci Messing is president of the TEA, which has about 2,400 members. The TEA is active with the MASD, which was created 12 years ago.

We do believe in diversity in terms of educating all cultures,” Messing said. Why Mexican-American studies is being singled out is part of our concern. We know how academically effective the program is, with students going on to higher education, and becoming active citizens.”

Yet the TEA’s attorney does not see a need to pursue legal redress against H.B. 2281 at this time, according to Messing, because the union believes MASD is in compliance with the law.

Whether or not that is true will soon be clear.

Sometime this year, the TUSD will present its view of the MASD’s compliance with H.B. 2281 to the state Superintendent of Public Instruction and the state Board of Education. A hearing for the presentation is not yet scheduled.

The stakes are high. If the Board of Education or the superintendent finds the MASD out of compliance with H.B. 2218, they can direct the TUSD to withhold up to ten percent of the monthly apportionment of state aid that would otherwise be due” to the district.

Against that backdrop of a possible funding loss, the TEA passed a motion of support for the MASD curriculum last June. A formal TEA resolution is under discussion, according to Messing.

Everybody should have a right to learn about their culture,” says Linda Hatfield, who chairs the southern Arizona-based Pima Area Labor Federation (PALF), which has 58,000 members in 22 unions and is affiliated with the Arizona AFL-CIO. We frequently have teachers involved in the struggle against HB 2281 come to speak at our meetings to update us on activities and actions.” 

PALF is working on an April resolution in support of the fight to preserve the MASD, according to Hatfield.

Rebekah Friend is secretary-treasurer for the Arizona AFL-CIO, which has 185,000 members in more than 200 unions, and works closely with the AEA (NEA). We have yet to take an official stance on the lawsuit challenging HB 2281, but I fail to see how we would not support it,” she said.

HB 2281 in Arizona is part of a bigger, repressive attempt nationwide to control parts of the population, from women’s health care to workers’ and immigrants’ rights,” Friend said. It’s a mindset to cleanse out ethnic studies, unions, and all social spending generally that we in unions and others have fought for, like the eight-hour working day, child labor laws and social security, and won.”

It is noteworthy that Arizona is a right-to-work-state, one of 22 such states which restrict labor unions’ capacities to expand. Later this month, the executive council of the Arizona AFL-CIO may take up a resolution to support the HB 2281 lawsuit, according to Friend.

national campaign of Tucson’s MASD to inform the public and to raise funds for the legal fight against H.B. 2281 continues, and the new film Precious Knowledge, which documents the MASD, premieres this month.
According to the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures, it is unaware of any other state with legislation similar to H.B. 2281.

Whether the MASD is deemed in or out of compliance with HB 2281, we’re going to stand firm in our position of support and offer resources to continue to either bring it back or ensure that it stays,” Messing says.

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Seth Sandronsky is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Race and Class, Review of Radical Political Economics, Sacramento News & Review and Z Magazine, among other publications. He lives and writes in Sacramento, Calif., and can be reached at ssandronsky@​yahoo.​com.
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