Arizona Official Says Teaching About KRS-One Violates Ethnic Studies Ban

Learning about a hip-hop legend is too racially divisive, and having students read Rage Against the Machine lyrics is also off-limits.

KRS-One (Photo: PYMCA/UIG via Getty Images)

Jan 5, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Back in the late 1980s, prominent hip-hop artist KRS-One was dubbed “the Teacher” for his socially conscious rap lyrics—his influential Stop the Violence movement sure could use a 21st-century reboot. But according to John Huppenthal, Arizona’s outgoing state superintendent of public instruction, incorporating KRS-One’s rhymes about America’s societal problems into an English class is a violation of the state’s ban on ethnic studies.

On Friday Huppenthal sent a notice of noncompliance to the Tucson Unified School District citing several examples of ethnic studies violations. Cholla High Magnet School, a public school on Tucson’s west side, is the main culprit. The school regularly incorporates African American and Mexican American perspectives (those two groups are the bulk of its student body) into its academic instruction, which drew Huppenthal’s ire.

“I am deeply concerned by the fact that the noncompliance appears to extend beyond classes taught from the Mexican American perspective and now also includes classes taught from the African American perspective,” Huppenthal wrote.

Along with an English class that use KRS-One’s essay “An Introduction to Hip Hop,” the school also came under fire because a U.S. history class called Culturally Relevant Mexican American Perspective has been using used the Rage Against the Machine song “Take the Power Back.”

In 2010 a law banning any classes that “promote resentment toward any race or class” or “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of being individuals” was passed in the state. The law went into effect in 2011, and the following year Tucson eliminated its ethnic studies courses so that the district would still receive state funding. But that hasn’t meant that community members and educators have supported stripping culturally relevant material out of the curricula. Despite lawsuits challenging the law, the controversial ban was upheld by a federal court in 2013.

In his letter, Huppenthal wrote that the existence of the classes at Cholla Magnet “reveals a program in disarray, with insufficient support for teachers, inadequate teaching to students and little transparency for parents and community members.”

However, in a statement H.T. Sanchez, the superintendent of the Tucson schools, said that courses like those offered at Cholla Magnet were designed to help the district meet a federal desegregation degree.

"The state of Arizona has repeatedly attempted to intervene in the district's active desegregation case for the stated purpose of controlling the district's implementation of federal court-mandated curriculum," said Sanchez. "These courses were developed specifically under the court order. That order—the Unitary Status Plan—requires us to develop and implement culturally relevant courses taught from both the Mexican American and African American perspectives."

Given that Huppenthal’s last day in office was Friday, whether his successor intends to pursue the matter remains to be seen. As for what Huppenthal will be doing now that he's out of office, our guess is that he's not moving to Los Angeles. That city just made ethnic studies a graduation requirement.