Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal will not testify in the hearing to appeal his finding that Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican-American Studies program is breaking state law.
Although Huppenthal was on the district’s final witness list submitted to the administrative law judge, the district’s attorneys said Aug. 23 he won’t be called because they concluded that his testimony would repeat statements made by other witnesses.
Heather Gaines, an attorney representing the district, said opting not to question him won’t be a missed opportunity because the burden of proving the district is out of compliance is on Huppenthal.
“So I am surprised that his counsel opted not to call him since it was his decision,” Gaines said.
Huppenthal on June 15 found the district to be out of compliance with state law that governs the teaching of ethnic studies, a decision that was in conflict with a $110,000 independent audit that found there was “no observable evidence” to conclude the district’s program violated the law.
Two of Huppenthal’s top aides who conducted an investigation of the program each gave about four hours of testimony during day-long proceedings held on Aug. 19 and 23. The final day of the hearing will be Sept. 14.
If the district is found to be out of compliance, it stands to lose $15 million in state funding.
Those aides, John Stollar, chief of programs and policy, and Kathy Hrabluk, associate superintendent for school effectiveness, repeated Huppenthal’s June 15 justification for rejecting the findings of the Cambium Learning Group. They testified that the auditors didn’t spend enough time observing the classes, the interviews with students were arranged by the Mexican-American Studies teachers and there was a lack of class materials to review.
Huppenthal’s attorneys finished presenting their case Aug. 23, but cross examination shows that the district is trying to establish that the Department of Education’s own investigation was even more lacking than Cambium’s.
Stollar and Hrabluk said they never observed any classes or read any of the books they cited and they drew their conclusions only from class materials.
Aside from their testimony, the state also called two members of the Tucson Unified School District governing board, a parent whose child took one of the courses and the program’s director.
Governing board member Michael Hicks said he believes the district is out of compliance with the law based on conversations with constituents, textbooks and YouTube videos pertaining to the program he has seen.
Former school board President Mark Stegeman provided the most dramatic testimony.
Stegeman, who was stripped of his position as president Aug. 23, compared the program to a cult, a conclusion he made while observing one of the classes.
Stegeman, who appeared at times to be on the verge of crying, said that as he watched the class he suddenly remembered a book he read decades ago, “True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements” by Eric Hoffer, which was about cult psychology and theorizes that mass movements are driven by individuals who question their self worth.
“What I felt I observed was the instructor pulling the students in the direction of us versus them,” Stegeman said.
Stegeman said that at the end of the class, students recited a chant in unison. He said he could only discern portions of it, but he clearly heard a part that went: “We must be willing to act in a revolutionary fashion.”
Stegeman scribbled notes that read: “This is a cult,” “This is pure political proselytizing,” “45 minutes in and no education is happening,” and “Not critical thinking, it does teach resentment.”
One of Huppenthal’s findings was that the classes promote resentment toward a race or class of people. He also found that the classes are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group and advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.
If Huppenthal’s finding stands, then the district will be penalized with the loss of 10 percent of its state money until it comes into compliance.
Stegeman also wrote among his notes that the teacher, Curtis Acosta, said, “We are still in the struggle.”
He said his strongest impression was that the students were learning resentment toward a “ruling or oppressor class.”
Sean Arce, the program’s director, said Huppenthal cherry-picked passages from text books and class materials and used them out of context.
“When you’re looking at these words like oppression and racism, they say we’re teaching these things,” Arce said. “We’re not.”
Part of the district’s defense is that Huppenthal has never proved that any of the textbooks or materials he says supports his findings were ever used in the classroom.
Much of Arce’s testimony painstakingly went through reading lists, Power Point presentations and other materials about whether they were available to teachers of the program and whether they were used in class.
But he was also grilled on a 2009 academic article he wrote with the program’s founder, Augustine Romero.
The article, which was about compassionate intellectualism — the teaching foundation for the program — included passages that say America was founded on racism, and the teaching philosophy advocates “transformative action to overcome oppression,” and suggests encouraging students to take “the red pill” to indoctrinate them. It was a pop culture reference to the truth.
“Do they take the pill,” asked Huppenthal’s attorney Bryan Murphy. “Do you talk to the students about taking the red pill?”
Arce’s answer to that question and several others was that he wrote the article for an academic journal. He denied writing specific passages that Murphy pointed out and wouldn’t agree or disagree with statements in the article.
On cross examination, however, Arce said compassionate intellectualism is aligned to state teaching standards, requires critical theory and a strong interaction between the parent, teacher and student.
“It is designed for all students,” Arce said.