Protest signs, vigils, marching and chanting in unison have been a hallmark in the debate over the Mexican American Studies program of Tucson Unified School District.
And when nine high school students and young adults stormed a dais April 26 to chain themselves to the chairs to prevent a vote on a resolution to make changes to the program, their actions and the debate drew national and international attention.
But how effective was their takeover? It appears that three members of the five-member school board are solid in their support of the resolution the group was protesting.
Pollster Bruce Merrill said the protesters were highly successful in gaining media attention, which is very important because it can have some influence on politicians in the long run. Merrill said he even heard about it while he was on fishing trip in Colorado.
“Whether it will have long-term impact is hard to say, and it may not even have the desired opinion on this particular vote, but when another vote like that comes up down the line, people who have seen this protest and know what could happen certainly could be influenced by it,” Merrill said.
The students were successful in stopping the vote on the resolution, which would make history classes in the Mexican American Studies program electives and broaden cultural studies in the district’s social studies curriculum.
The vote on the resolution was rescheduled for May 3, but was postponed until after a yet-to-be scheduled community forum, Tucson Unified School District Superintendent John Pedicone said in written statement May 3.
Elisa Meza, the 20-year-old ringleader of the student group, Unidos, said they took over the dais because they believed the board wasn’t taking them seriously or listening to their arguments for keeping the program as it is.
“It had to come to that,” she said.
Some believe, however, that their actions will backfire.
Richard Kronberg, a former National Education Association (NEA) president from Alaska who is spokesman for Tucsonans United For Sound Districts, a group that supports the resolution, said he sees their actions as a temper tantrum and not a true form of civil disobedience because they aren’t fighting for basic rights like the civil rights leaders did in the South.
Kronberg said he believes much of the support for keeping the Mexican American Studies program the way it is has evaporated since the takeover.
“They really proved, in a sense, Tom Horne’s point that this is all about creating a culture of ‘I am oppressed and I have a right to demonstrate against that,’” Kronberg said.
In 2010, Horne, as superintendent of public instruction, drafted HB2281, which makes it illegal for classes to promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, promote resentment toward a race or class of people, advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals and are designed for pupils of a particular ethnic group. Violating the law will cost a school district 10 percent of its annual appropriation from the state.
Kronberg said the students’ main grievance was that they weren’t being heard is false because they and other proponents have monopolized the board’s call to the audience at board meetings to make their case for months.
“The fact they claim nobody listened to them, the fact that people don’t agree with them does not mean they weren’t heard,” Kronberg said.
Margaret Kenski, a Tucson-based pollster, said she has conducted polls after protests where there was property damage and the disruption of legal processes like the board meeting and found that people lose sympathy for the cause of the protestors.
Kenski hasn’t conducted any polling on the ethnic studies program, but by knowing the demographics of the district she believes a majority is in support of the Mexican American Studies program, but the students didn’t help their cause.
“I think most people don’t like disruptions that seem to prevent a board meeting from being held or this chaining themselves to the chairs stuff. I think most people think that’s over the top,” Kenski said.
Dave Cieslak, a Democratic consultant, said he would have advised against the takeover because it might alienate moderates and plays into the hands of Horne, who Cieslak says is more an aspiring governor than attorney general.
“He’s loving this,” Cieslak said. “He’s a career politician and with each story about ethnic studies is a mention about Tom Horne’s opposition.”
The Mexican American Studies program has been scrutinized and under attack since 2007 when civil rights icon Dolores Huerta told a group of TUSD students that “Republicans hate Latinos.”
Horne declared that the school district was out of compliance with HB2281 on his last day as superintendent.
His successor, John Huppenthal, has commissioned an audit of the program to determine its compliance, which he won’t decide on until later this month.
Meza, a University of Arizona junior, said she did not take Mexican American Studies classes in high school, but she became inspired a year ago when she attended a 24-hour vigil held by high school students at the urging of a friend.
Meza said she and some adult organizers who are in their early 20s, most of whom had taken Mexican American Studies in high school, began organizing the high school students into Unidos and they had a coming-out party in February.
She said the group attended all of the TUSD board meetings since February and students spoke out at them. They became frustrated when the board wouldn’t reply to their statements at the meetings and wouldn’t meet with them.
Meza said she has learned only recently about sunshine laws that prohibit the board from discussing items that aren’t on the meeting agenda and prohibits the board from meeting as a group in private and without proper public notice.
Sen. Steve Gallardo, a Phoenix Democrat, said he was in the front row of the April 26 meeting preparing to speak when he the saw the students leave their seats from a few rows back and go the dais.
“I could not believe what the students were doing, but I understand,” Gallardo said.
He doesn’t encourage what they did, but he believes they were successful.
“They raised the level of debate on this particular issue,” Gallardo said.