UPDATE: The Arizona Department of Education has decided that it will not cut the Tucson Unified School District’s funding, since it was satisfied with the way it had complied with the law. The district reports that it will also continue to teach “culturally relevant curriculum” in its ethnically focused classes, which will be monitored by the state.
Dr. H.T. Sanchez, the Tucson schools superintendent whose district was targeted earlier this month for violating an Arizona state law limiting ethnically themed classes, tells Rolling Stone he supports his teachers.
In early January, the departing state superintendent of schools, John Huppenthal, sent Sanchez a “notice of noncompliance” that declared some English and history courses that emphasized Mexican-American and African-American studies — and taught Rage Against the Machine lyrics and an essay by KRS-One — to be illegal. The state’s new superintendent, Diane Douglas, supported the letter. And even though Sanchez has agreed to work with the state on correcting the violations within two months, or face a 10 percent punitive budget cut, he praises the instructors who devised those classes’ curricula.
“I think our teachers are doing a great job,” Sanchez says. “I’m hopeful that the state’s olive branch out is something that signifies a new beginning of trust and cooperation between my district and the state’s educational agency.”
The classes highlighted in Huppenthal’s letter were in violation of a 2010 law that prohibits classes that “promote the overthrow of the United States government,” “promote resentment toward a race or class of people” and “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” The notice also highlighted the lyrics to Rage Against the Machine’s “Take the Power Back” and portions of KRS-One’s introduction to hip-hop as violations.
“I’ve gone on record saying that teaching from an African-American or a Mexican-American point of view doesn’t equate to teaching hatred of any group,” he says. “What it does is talk about how a certain circumstance — a historical circumstance or literary theme — is seen from another perspective. It goes back to the KRS-One quotation, and the teacher at one of my high schools is using that. I find that very defensible because that’s a perspective, and it’s a very valid perspective.”
He also says he had a special affinity for Rage Against the Machine on a personal level since he was a senior in high school when the song came out in 1992. “That’s music that a Generation X teacher is using to reach out to a millennial, to talk about common circumstance and social struggles and to tie it up with what’s happening in Ferguson and New York, where you’ve got NBA stars wearing ‘I Can’t Breathe’ shirts…. It’s an ability to connect and music has always been about that.”
Sanchez intends to continue to keep music a part of the schools’ curricula but says that teachers need to make sure the music in question is age appropriate and does not contain inappropriate language. “I feel like we should continue to use music to bridge generational gaps,” he says. “If you think about it historically, Neil Young’s ‘Southern Man,’ Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Sweet Home Alabama,’ Rolling Stones’ ‘Brown Sugar’ — all those songs comment on the Deep South in the Civil Rights era. You also have Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Capital G’ about the Iraq War and President George W. Bush.
“Music is able to show that certain struggles aren’t new to this generation but transcend generations and that we’re still trying to solve the same problems,” he continues. “I think any media that does that is appropriate.”
Earlier this week, federal judges have begun reviewing the law banning ethnic studies in a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and questioning its constitutionality. Previously, a provision to the law that prohibited classes “designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group” was found to be unconstitutional in 2013, and an attorney representing the state is seeking to have it reinstated. Fronteras reports that the plaintiffs in the suit claim the entire law violates students’ First Amendment rights.
When Rolling Stone asks Sanchez whether he’s awaiting a ruling from the court, he again voiced support of his teachers. “It shouldn’t matter which way the either way that law goes,” he says. “What it does change for us is the threat. Right now, if people at the state agency don’t like what we’ve put together, even if we work as hard as we can hand-in-hand with them, we lose $14 million out of our budget, which is big. It’s the threat of that penalty. What doesn’t change is we want quality and excellence. We want people to look at what we build in our classes and ask for a copy because it’s that good. If we don’t have that threat, we’re going to work just as hard, probably harder.”
A representative for Douglas said the superintendent was not available for an interview for this article.
Going forward, Sanchez — who has agreed to be a part of Douglas’ newly devised Latino Advisory Committee — says he will meet with the instructors who teach ethnically focused classes and build lessons that align with the state standards. “We’re going to take a look at the materials we used in those classes and make sure that we feel good about them being exposed out to the general public or the cover of the Rolling Stone,” he says with a laugh. He says he intends to work with the state superintendent’s office to discuss the evolving classes – “and that’s happening quickly,” he says.