Education Justice in Tucson

The teachers we heard from are disgusted. They have been fighting for the Mexican American Studies (MAS) program in the Tucson Unified School District since 2006 when then superintendent Tom Horne identified the program as unworthy and destructive. The program, which we learned was founded in the 1990’s through a grassroots movement to address the needs of the local community, was supposedly teaching students the “overthrow of the US government” and “ethnic solidarity.” Despite students in the program getting better test scores and having higher graduation rates, Horne and his cohorts were successful in getting the program and its books—books like The Tempest and A People’s History of the United States—banned. The teachers we spoke with, along with their younger counterparts in UNIDOS, are part of the larger movement in Tucson for education justice.
Education in Tucson, explained by the teachers we heard from, is incredibly unequal. With the recent announcement that 11 schools will be closed, it is more and more difficult for Mexican American students to compete. The schools being closed are disproportionately attended by Mexican American students, meaning that their commutes and class sizes are both about to increase significantly. There is clear segregation within the Tucson public schools, which rarely address the needs of Mexican American students. The MAS program addressed some of the inequalities and isolation, giving students a critical lens through which to view their own experiences. No matter what the student’s race or ethnicity, the MAS program encouraged reflection on one’s identity and asking hard questions about how society functions.

Now, however, teachers can’t ask those hard questions. They are being censored. While never truly abandoning their principles—“I will always teach critical thinking”—many now feel they must stick to teaching things that are safe. Before the ban, one of the activities they did in class was to show a documentary about experiences of cultural genocide among Native Americans in the US, and then reflect with the class on culture and what it means to have ones culture taken away with force. Now TUSD teachers must be more subtle, because this “subversive” information is considered anti-American, and is given no place in the classroom.

When sharing their classroom experience their frustration was tangible to me. The two of them are clearly bubbling over with energy for education, with enthusiasm to work with young people and help them become the best that they can be. Yet their energy, yet undying, is not valued by those in control of Tucson’s system of education. They are tired. They are let down. They are sickened.

And yet. Despite being confronted with racism and a complete disregard for the futures of incredibly intelligent and creative young people, they are not cynical. As one said at the conclusion of their presentation: “I don’t lose hope in human beings. If I did I wouldn’t be teaching.”

-Rachel Winsberg

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