Equity & Diversity

Ariz. District Drops Ethnic Studies Classes

By Lesli A. Maxwell — January 17, 2012 3 min read
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With millions in state funding on the line, the school board in Tucson, Ariz., voted last week to shutter a popular Mexican-American studies program. But the move is now raising questions about whether the district will be out of compliance with a federal court order to bring racial balance to its schools.

By a vote of 4-1, the board agreed to suspend the district’s controversial ethnic-studies program.

Members said canceling the Mexican-American studies courses was necessary to prevent the 60,000-student Tucson Unified School District from losing nearly $15 million in state funding that John Huppenthal, the state schools chief, threatened to withhold. Mr. Huppenthal said the courses violate a new state law that prohibits public schools from offering courses that are designed for a particular ethnic group, advocate ethnic solidarity, or promote resentment toward a race or group of people. (“Tucson Students Aren’t Deterred by Ethnic-Studies Controversy,” Sept. 22, 2010.)

Leaders of the Tucson district denied that the classes promoted resentment, and they appealed Mr. Huppenthal’s decision. A ruling from an administrative-law judge late last month backed the state chief’s position.

After the school board’s vote, district officials began immediately to convert the Mexican-American studies courses to “traditional” American history, American government, and American literature classes, said Cara Rene, a district spokeswoman.

“We are working to ensure there is as little disruption as possible for students,” Ms. Rene wrote in an email. “Students will not lose any credits that may risk promotion or graduation.”

Ms. Rene said teachers who taught the Mexican-American studies courses would now teach the more traditional courses and adapt the traditional curriculum to their classes. The district did not dissolve the Mexican-American studies department, which will continue to offer services to support academic achievement for Latino students, Ms. Rene said.

Next Iteration

The school system—in consultation with the Arizona education department—will create new courses for the 2012-13 school year that “will provide studies in diverse perspectives,” Ms. Rene said.

But the controversy over the program is far from settled.

Tucson school officials now face legal questions about whether the decision to cancel the Mexican-American studies program jeopardizes its own plan—approved by the school board in 2009—to comply with a more than 3-decade-old federal desegregation order. A key part of the district’s plan called for an expansion of its ethnic-studies programs, which a federal judge approved. Days before the board voted to end the program, the federal judge overseeing the district’s desegregation case assigned a special master to help district leaders develop a new plan to bring racial balance to the schools.

One other legal challenge also remains unresolved. Eleven Tucson teachers and two students sued in federal court contending that the state law violates their First Amendment rights. U.S. Circuit Court Judge A. Wallace Tashima last week allowed the lawsuit to proceed, but ruled that only the students had standing to sue.

While the battle over the program has been pitched in Arizona, one national civil rights activist said he doesn’t expect the decision in Tucson to reverberate beyond the state, where the politics around immigration are particularly polarizing.

“When these arguments flare up in the K-12 world, it’s usually around how to present facts in a textbook or in curriculum,” said Roger L. Rice, a civil rights lawyer who is the executive director of Multicultural Education, Training, and Advocacy, or META, in Somerville, Mass.

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the January 18, 2012 edition of Education Week as After Long Battle, Ariz. District Drops Ethnic-Studies Courses


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