Law & Courts

Audit Contradicts Arizona Chief on Ethnic Studies

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 17, 2011 6 min read
Protesters gather to support the Tucson Unified School District after Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal announced earlier this week that the district violated state law by teaching its Mexican-American studies program. A state audit contradicts Huppenthal’s finding, saying “no observable evidence was present to suggest that any classroom within the Tucson Unified School District is in direct violation of the law."

Tension within and outside the Tucson Unified School District over the fate of its controversial Mexican-American studies program increased this week after it became public that an audit of the program ordered by Arizona’s state schools chief contradicts his determination that the program doesn’t comply with state law.

In a meeting on Friday, members of the Tucson Unified school board voted 4 to 1 to appeal state Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal’s ruling that the district’s delivery of Mexican-American studies violates a new Arizona statute limiting the scope of such classes.

“People were in the mood that Huppenthal did a crazy thing because he went against his own audit, so there was no way they weren’t going to appeal it,” said Mark Stegeman, the president of the board.

Mr. Stegeman was the one board member who voted against appealing Mr. Huppenthal’s ruling through a state administrative hearing. He said he has always supported having Mexican-American history and culture as part of the curriculum at Tucson Unified, but how that happens is open to different viewpoints. In his research about the history of ethnic studies in the district, he said, he recently found out that the school board had never carried out the usual procedures to approve the Mexican-American studies courses. He said he argued on Friday that “if the courses don’t legally exist, let’s just start over and do it right.”

But the other board members disagreed and supported Tucson Unified’s superintendent, John J. Pedicone, in the move to appeal Mr. Huppenthal’s ruling.

The ethnic-studies controversy “has been a distraction ever since the law passed a year ago, and it’s been cranking up since then, and particularly in the last few weeks,” Mr. Stegeman said in an interview Friday.

He said that different viewpoints about the program among board members and among educators within the 53,000-student district have created a tense situation.

On June 13, Mr. Huppenthal, a Republican, said an investigation had revealed that the Mexican-American studies program was not in compliance with the state’s law governing ethnic studies taught by public schools. He gave the school district 60 days to comply or lose 10 percent of its state funding.

Mr. Huppenthal contended that the program needed to come into compliance in three areas: It couldn’t be designed for a particular ethnic or racial group, it couldn’t promote resentment toward a particular race or class of people, and it couldn’t advocate ethnic solidarity.

But a couple of days later, local news organizations reported that Mr. Huppenthal’s determination contradicted the conclusion of the audit that he himself had commissioned.

That audit, conducted by the Dallas-based Cambium Learning Group Inc. and the Miami Lakes, Fla.-based National Academic Educational Partners, stated that “during the curriculum audit period, no observable evidence was present to suggest that any classroom within the Tucson Unified School District is in direct violation of the law.”

After the contents of the audit became public, Mr. Huppenthal followed up in a June 16 press release, saying that “the majority of the information collected by the [Arizona Department of Education] was obtained from sources outside of the independent curriculum audit.” The press release added that Mr. Huppenthal had used the “totality of the information and facts gathered during the months-long investigation to make his final determination.”

Judy Burns, the clerk for Tucson Unified’s school board, said in an interview Friday that she believes the Mexican-American courses are in compliance with state law, and board members unanimously approved a resolution in December making the same assertion.

When asked why Mr. Huppenthal decided otherwise, she responded, “There has been all sorts of political pressure.”

Ms. Burns said she’s convinced that students benefit from the classes and that the program should continue. “These classes have often been the first time [students have] realized that they need to educate themselves and be productive in society,” she said.

Ms. Burns added that the district’s offering of Mexican-American studies was mentioned in a plan that enabled it to be released from a 30-year-old desegregation order. The plan said that the district should expand the courses to reach even more students when it has the finances to do so, she noted.

Audit’s Findings

The audit commissioned by the Arizona Department of Education, which is dated May 2, found that the high school graduation rate for students taking Mexican-American studies in Tucson was higher than that of students who didn’t take the classes. Students in the class of 2010 who had taken the courses were 11 percent more likely to graduate than those in a comparison group who didn’t, the audit found.

Mr. Pedicone, who became the superintendent of the Tucson Unified schools in January, has publicly supported the courses, but has not been confrontational. After former state schools chief Tom Horne, a Republican who is now the state attorney general, decided in January that the program was out of compliance with state law, Mr. Pedicone posted a letter on the district website saying the district would abide by state laws.

Ethnic-Studies Courses Provide Different World View

Tucson High School students, interviewed in September 2010, contest charges that ethnic-studies courses teach minority students that they are victims.

Neither he nor Mr. Huppenthal responded to requests for comment Friday.

The law has been challenged by Martin Sean Arce, the director of the Mexican-American studies program in Tucson, and 11 teachers who provide instruction for the program. In October, they filed a lawsuit in federal court contending the state law on ethnic studies violates the First and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, including the equal protection and due process clauses.

“The statute is so vague and ambiguous that it denies due process because it fails to provide an adequate definition as to what is permitted or what can lead to sanctions,” Richard Martinez, a Tucson lawyer representing the educators, said in a phone interview Friday.

He said the educators have filed a motion for summary judgment asking the judge to make the law unenforceable by declaring it unconstitutional. He also said the educators were poised to file a motion requesting a preliminary injunction that would put on hold the 60-day clock Mr. Huppenthal set for the Tucson district to comply with the ethnic-studies law.

Mr. Martinez said that because Mr. Huppenthal is a defendant in the lawsuit, Mr. Arce and the 11 teachers did not grant interviews to the auditors sent to Tucson by the state. He said they did, however, permit auditors to observe in their classrooms.

Mr. Martinez said the controversy has led to a great deal of tension between district administrators and his clients involved in the Mexican-American studies program, as well as within the wider community.

Both Ms. Burns and Mr. Martinez described how the Tucson Unified school board canceled a meeting on April 26, in which the board was set to discuss a resolution—since pulled— about the kinds of credits that could be awarded for Mexican-American studies.

Ms. Burns said the meeting was cut short because students took it over. She said six or seven students were arrested for being disruptive.

Mr. Martinez estimated that 100 police, some in riot gear, were present at the meeting. He contended that amount of security was excessive.

A version of this article appeared in the July 13, 2011 edition of Education Week as Audit Contradicts Arizona Chief on Ethnic Studies Classes

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