TUSD MAS ban: Educational sovereignty in the wake of state repressionby tcguestblogger on Jan. 30, 2012, under Uncategorized
By Julio Cammarota, Ph. D.
University of Arizona
Arizona state superintendent of public instruction, John Huppenthal implemented anti-Ethnic Studies bill HB2281/ARS15-112, which effectively banned Tucson Unified School District’s (TUSD) Mexican American Studies (MAS) program. This ban is an affront to the educational sovereignty of the Tucson community and democracy everywhere. It seems that the bottom-up approach of MAS was too democratic for Huppenthal and other state and local officials who feel the need to maintain a top-down, authoritative rule over education.
Mexican American Studies upholds democratic ideals by embracing an educational sovereignty that entails building education from the ground. Educational sovereignty is a conceptual term articulated by University of Arizona Professors Luis Moll and Richard Ruiz to delineate the best approach for communities to educate children. This approach requires a bottom-up perspective in which local history, culture, and experience are revered for the potential to scaffold and thus develop knowledge. Educational sovereignty nurtures and enhances young people’s intellectual capacities by drawing from the cultural and social resources of a local ecology that consists of students, families, and communities. The end result amounts to young people who not only know about their own culture and history but also embrace a framework and the confidence to comprehend ideas and concepts linked to the expansion of global knowledge. Fans of democracy would certainly appreciate the bottom-up approach of allowing students’ historical and cultural backgrounds to guide them to construct new, broader knowledge for the advancement of humanity.
Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American Studies (MAS) program represents the best example of educational sovereignty. This program has promoted the academic success of numerous students for reasons stated above. In fact, many MAS students have demonstrated the connection between local and broader knowledge by passing the math (a subject not taught by MAS teachers) section of the AIMS test (standardized exit exam) at higher rates than non-MAS students. What accounts for this difference is the MAS students’ comprehension that they originate from cultural and historical backgrounds that posses and cultivate knowledge and therefore they realize that they too possess and cultivate knowledge. Unfortunately, the state of Arizona and TUSD have terminated educational sovereignty and the MAS program, which means that these successes will cease for the time being.
Although MAS was terminated, it is still critical to identify the aspects of the bottom-up approach that make the program so successful. 1) Several MAS teachers grew up and attended public school in Tucson and therefore have first-hand knowledge of the kinds of experiences, families, and communities from which their students derive. 2) The curriculum draws from the cultural and historical backgrounds of the students, which allows them to recognize the relevance of the material as well as the possibilities for their intellectual development. 3) The community participates in the students’ education through guest educators who are members of the community or students and faculty from the local university and college. 4) Finally, students are NEVER perceived in a deficit mode or as blank slates but as individuals who can contribute to the education of everyone in the classroom, including the teacher. These four aspects contribute to the effectiveness of the bottom-up approach and lead to an enriched program.
But why would the state of Arizona and TUSD ban MAS’ enriched curriculum? The answer lies in recognizing that the bottom-up approach of educational sovereignty provides more power and control to ‘the people’ (teachers, students, families, communities) and less to the state. More power to the people suggests that one day there will be those, particularly young people, who might question the authority and decision-making of state leaders. This questioning has come to fruition as many young people continue to protest the state’s ban of Mexican American Studies. The one message we can tell them is that there is nothing wrong with questioning the state’s authority; this keeps democracy vibrant and healthy. However, history reveals that sometimes governments prefer to maintain authoritarian rule, power, and control by suppressing the will of the people. In the past, governments have imposed bans and black listings similar to the state of Arizona’s extrication of Mexican American studies. The most infamous of these were Torquemada’s inquisition in Spain, Hitler’s Nazi censorship in Germany, Afrikaans’ Bantu Education in South Africa, and McCarthy’s Un-American Activities Committee in the United States. Now we have Huppenthal’s order encouraging TUSD to silence teachers, ban books, and punish students in modern day Arizona.
Professors Moll and Ruiz first articulated educational sovereignty more than decade ago, and we have the good fortune of seeing it blossom into practice through Mexican American studies. This good fortune has run into a wall of state repression. Because MAS students no longer have access to the country’s most effective program for closing the achievement gap, the ban on Mexican American studies represents a sad moment for them. Sadness also extends to democracy as the state of Arizona and TUSD look to reinsert a top-down, authoritative approach to education. The irony is that most would agree, regardless of political stripe, that local community control of schools is the best way to teach our children. Democracy should not be pushed to the wayside by denying educational sovereignty to Mexican American studies.
Julio Cammarota is an associate professor in Mexican-American Studies at the University of Arizona. His research focuses on participatory action research with Latina/o youth, institutional factors in academic achievement, and liberatory pedagogy. He has published articles on family, work, and education among Latinas/os and on the relationship between culture and academic achievement. He is the co-editor of two volumes in the Critical Youth Studies series published by Routledge/Falmer Press: Beyond Resistance! Youth Activism and Community Change: New Democratic Possibilities for Practice and Policy for America’s Youth (2006) and Revolutionizing Education: Youth Participatory Action Research in Motion (2008). Dr. Cammarota has published an ethnography of Latina/o youth entitled, Sueños Americanos: Barrio Youth Negotiate Social and Cultural Identities (University of Arizona Press, 2008). His work has been instrumental with advancing social justice in education and youth development. Currently, he is the co-director of the Social Justice Education Project in Tucson, Arizona.