Tom Horne has two degrees from Harvard University. He participated in Martin Luther King's 1963 March on Washington. He's Arizona's superintendent of public instruction.
In other words, he's not the kind of guy you would expect to find at the forefront of a movement to eliminate a politically sensitive program such as ethnic studies. Yet there he is, blasting classes that promote what he calls "ethnic chauvinism," calling for voters to oust school board members who support it and generally painting a target on his back for liberals and minority advocacy groups.
"What I object to is dividing kids by race and teaching them only about their own culture," Mr. Horne said in a telephone interview. "That's exactly the opposite of what we should be doing. We should be teaching kids that they're individuals and not exemplars of racial groups."
What's equally remarkable is that he is succeeding. In June, a state legislative committee approved a bill, backed by Mr. Horne, under which school districts would lose 10 percent of their funding every month unless they eliminated ethnic studies from the curriculum.
The bill was expected to pass both houses of the Republican-dominated Legislature, but a massive standoff over the state budget pushed votes on all unrelated legislation to the end of the session. The Legislature adjourned July 1 before the bill could reach the floor for a vote.
Its sponsor, state Sen. Jonathan Paton, later called the bill "a victim of circumstances." Still, backers are confident the bill will pass next year, when essentially the same cast of characters returns for the 2010 legislative session. Republican Gov. Jan Brewer is expected to sign the bill.
The delay gives critics another six months to combat Mr. Horne's efforts. Supporters of ethnic studies argue that students who participate in the program do better on standardized tests and deny that the courses promote "ethnic chauvinism."
"That's an absolute lie," said Augustine Romero, who heads the Mexican American/Raza studies program at Tucson Unified School District. "That's the message used to try to fire up people against us. We have Anglo kids in our program. It's really unfortunate that there's a lot of misinformation about the program out there."
The Tucson school district has three charter high schools with an ethnic studies theme that could be forced to revamp their programs if the legislation passes.
"It really affects us in that, if there's a change, we would have to re-evaluate our purpose," said Tillie Arvizu, vice president of Chicanos por la Causa, which sponsors the charter schools. "What makes us different is that we have the opportunity to offer Chicano studies and Mexican-American history to our students."
Ethnic studies proponents also worry that the elimination of the program would turn high school into an exercise in European history, with scant references to the struggles of blacks, Hispanics and American Indians. Mr. Romero cited one required history textbook that he said devotes just four pages to Latinos.
Mr. Horne countered that the state's education standards already require teaching the history of the minority experience in mainstream social studies classes. "It's not white American history," he said.
The superintendent's quest to end ethnic studies in Arizona began about three years ago, when he heard what he called disturbing reports about the program in the Tucson Unified School District. He said he found evidence that ethnic studies courses were teaching Hispanic students a separatist political philosophy that called for them to distrust and resent whites.
An English teacher, Hector Ayala, reported that a Raza studies teacher at Cholla High School had accused him of being "the white man's agent" and that students had said they were being taught "not to fall for the white man's traps."
"The problem with these [ethnic] studies is they have a tendency to be very separatist," Mr. Ayala said. "They tell kids their failures and shortcomings are not their own, that white men are putting obstacles in their way."
In 2006, Deputy Superintendent Margaret Garcia Dugan came to speak to students at Tucson High Magnet School in response to a previous speaker, United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta, who told students that "Republicans hate Latinos."
Mrs. Dugan, whose father was an immigrant mine worker, told the students, "I'm Latina, and I'm Republican, and I don't hate myself." A small group of students stood up, raised their fists and walked out.
The episode set off alarms in the superintendent's office. "These kids didn't learn to be rude at home," Mr. Horne said. "They learned to be rude in their ethnic studies classes from their teachers."
Mr. Horne said he soon found the program was using textbooks such as "Oppressed America," which quotes a Hispanic activist saying that Chicanos should "kill the gringo." Another textbook, "The Mexican American Heritage," he said, promotes the idea of Aztlan, the five Southwestern states that activists say should be returned to Mexican control.
Mr. Romero said the students who walked out were expressing their views in an appropriate manner, not behaving rudely. After the Huerta speech, he said, school policy changed to allow students to leave the room if offended by a guest speaker.
"This was a situation where students, as young adults, were voicing themselves. They didn't boo. They quietly got up and walked out," Mr. Romero said. "They didn't want to hear it. They're ideologically opposed to her perspective."
As for the controversial ethnic studies textbooks, Mr. Romero said they're not incorrect, they just present a different perspective. "There are some people who are going to be opposed to reformist history, but we think of it as inclusive history," he said.
Mr. Horne spent nearly two years trying to shut down Tucson's ethnic studies program. After meeting resistance from the school board, he brought his campaign to the voters in an effort to get board members voted out of office. When that failed, he went to the state Legislature.
His critics may be relieved to know there's an end in sight. His second term as superintendent concludes in 2010, and he's planning to run for the Republican nomination for attorney general.
Whether the ethnic-studies controversy helps or hurts his election chances is irrelevant, he said.
"My view is that I'm in government service to do what's right," Mr. Horne said. "If I wasn't making somebody mad, I wouldn't be doing my job."