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Is a Little "Unum" Really So Bad?

In Monday's Washington Post, education columnist Valerie Strauss took issue with Arizona superintendent Tom Horne for promoting legislation (focused primarily on ethnic studies classes) that "pretends to be about education but is all about politics." Strauss wrote, "If you think Arizona state government officials would have something better to do than go after an ethnic studies program they don't like, you'd be wrong."

Strauss reports that Horne is so over-the-top that he thought it inappropriate for a Hispanic activist to tell Tucson high school students that "Republicans hate Latinos." Maybe it's because I'm some kind of bitter partisan, but I totally understand why Horne might find that troubling.

So, what was Horne's big offense that set Strauss off? What pernicious agenda did he foist on Arizona's schools? Horne championed the recently enacted House Bill 2281, which states that "a school district or charter school...shall not include in its program of instruction any courses or classes that include any of the following:

  • Promote the overthrow of the United States government.
  • Promote resentment towards a race or class of people.
  • Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.
  • Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of students as individuals."

The bill stipulates that the State Board of Education can withhold a portion of state aid that would otherwise be due to offending district or charter schools until the school is back in compliance...Radical stuff, huh?

Time was, oh, like last Tuesday, when charter critics were expressing concerns that charter schooling could lead to the balkanization of America and voiced fears that charters might promote racism or bias. In fact, charter proponents have been attacked as closeted racists because the absence of such prohibitions meant that conservative whites were free to use choice as an opportunity to flee to their own enclaves where they would indoctrinate students with racist sentiments. Talk about a no-win situation...Heck, even Strauss had previously written, "Few people would support a class that promotes resentment of a race [or] class of people, or the overthrow of our government."

So, now I'm just confused. I'm pretty sure Strauss doesn't think it's okay for schools to urge kids to overthrow the government or for them to fan ethnic or racial passions, so what's the beef?

Whatever Strauss thinks of Horne, whether she likes his politics or not, the four prohibitions seem to make pretty good sense--whether applied to district schools or charter schools. They give shape to the widely shared belief that public schools of any stripe ought to serve the public weal, promote mutual respect, and honor that which unifies us as Americans. Unlike Strauss, I don't see anything in there that would stop teachers from exploring "the role of Hispanics in the Vietnam War" or "emphasiz[ing] Latino authors." Indeed, I'm not sure I see anything that stops Latino activists from teaching Latino children that Republicans are the enemy. I merely see some reasonable boundaries to help ensure that schools and instructors don't go too far in pursuing their particular "pluribus" at the expense of our "unum."

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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