Arizona’s new ethnic studies law, House Bill 2281, takes effect this week, and the internets are full of chatter.

The law, the brainchild of outgoing AZ Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, has gotten a huge amount of attention, but its actual effect is still very much in doubt. We’re going to be hearing a lot more about this law in the coming months, so here’s a quick primer.

Let’s start with what the law doesn’t do. First, it doesn’t have any effect on college or university teaching — it’s aimed solely at K-12 education.

Second, despite the claims of folks ranging from Jezebel to Mother Jones, it’s not an “ethnic studies ban.” Instead, it’s a ban on four kinds of teaching — programs that “promote the overthrow of the United States government,” those that “promote resentment toward a race or class of people,” those that “are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group,” and those that “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”

If that list seems weird to you — if it seems like a right-winger’s fantasy of what ethnic studies are, rather than a description of any course or program you’ve ever been involved with — you’re not alone. Tom Horne crafted this law as a weapon to use against the ethnic studies program in the Tucson Unified School District, but the TUSD says — most recently in a resolution passed just last week — that they’re in full compliance with the law.

Indeed, the law itself bends over backwards to make clear that it’s not aimed at ethnic studies as a whole. It explicitly provides for the continued teaching of “courses or classes that include the history of any ethnic group,” including those which “include the discussion of controversial aspects of history.”

So what’s going on?

What’s going on is that Tom Horne has been on a public crusade against TUSD’s ethnic studies programs for years, and this bill is the fruit of that campaign.

Horne leaves office as schools superintendent today. (He was elected state Attorney General in November.) This morning he formally declared the TUSD Mexican-American Studies program in violation of HB2281.

The District now has sixty days to show the new superintendent that it’s in compliance with the law, though Horne contends that mere changes to the program won’t have that effect. “The violations are deeply rooted in the program itself,” he wrote this morning, “and partial adjustments will not constitute compliance” — they must jettison the program completely.

It’s not clear whether the incoming superintendent, John Huppenthal, shares that view. For their part, the TUSD intends to contest this ruling with Huppenthal, and possibly in the courts. If they’re found in violation the penalty would be a ten percent reduction in state support — a cut that Tucson’s superintendent says “would cripple the district, quite frankly.”

I’ll have more on Horne’s specific findings, and the district’s response, in a follow-up post.