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Ethnic-Studies Classes Tense Subject in Tucson

By Mary Ann Zehr — July 12, 2011 4 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 by a few notches after it became public last month 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 June 17, members of the Tucson Unified school board voted 4-1 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.

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.

Juan Lopez of Phoenix shows his support of the Tucson school district after state schools chief John Huppenthal said an ethnic-studies program violates a state law limiting the scope of such classes.

On June 13, Mr. Huppenthal, a Republican, said an investigation had revealed that the Mexican-American studies program in the 53,000-student district 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 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.”

With a legal appeal of Mr. Huppenthal’s ruling now pending, the state education department is not commenting on the specifics of the situation, said Andrew T. LeFebre, a department spokesman. He reiterated, however, that “the independent curriculum audit commissioned by [Mr. Huppenthal] was just one part of the larger investigation conducted by the department.”

Judy Burns, the clerk for Tucson Unified’s school board, said June 17 in an interview 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.

Audit’s Findings

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

Ms. Burns said 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.

The audit commissioned by the Arizona education department, 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.

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.

John J. 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.

In an email earlier this month, Mr. Pedicone called the situation “complex.” The Tucson superintendent said the conflict between Mr. Huppenthal’s findings and the audit “placed us in the position of asking for clarity on whether we are out of compliance and, if so, exactly what we must do in order to come into compliance. That was the basis for the decision to appeal the finding.”

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.

A version of this article appeared in the July 13, 2011 edition of Education Week as Ethnic-Studies Classes Tense Subject in Tucson

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