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Tucson district to begin new cultural studies program

Students work in a Latino Literature class which is part of the Mexican-American Studies program at Tucson High Magnet School. (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

All eyes will be on Tucson Unified School District in the next year as it establishes a court-ordered “culturally relevant” classes.

And while most are going to see how the process unfolds, Attorney General Tom Horne is certain the curriculum merely will be a resurrected version of the banned Mexican American Studies program because the new classes are under development by the same person who designed the defunct program.

“They’re so radical, they’re just going to do it,” said Horne, who wrote the law that put an end to Mexican American Studies.

The 2010 law forbids classes that promote ethnic solidarity, promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group, or promote resentment towards a race or class of people. Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal found the district to be in violation of the law in June 2011.  An administrative law judge upheld his finding.

The district’s school board suspended the classes in January 2012 to avoid being penalized 10 percent of the district’s state funding.

Horne lost a challenge in U.S. District Court to keep the cultural classes out of a desegregation plan for the district, which has been under federal oversight for almost 40 years as part of racial discrimination lawsuit.

Judge David Bury ordered the classes Feb. 6 as part of the larger desegregation plan, writing that the court’s order does not override state law, but even if it did, the Supreme Court has held that state law can’t impede desegregation orders.

“The state’s ability to withhold 10% of state funding from TUSD is a powerful weapon at the state’s disposal to ensure that TUSD complies with the law,” Bury wrote.

Bury said the new classes are designed “to reflect the history, experiences, and culture of African American and Mexican American communities.” He ordered them to start in the 2013-14 school year.

TUSD board member Mark Stegeman said it will be up to the school board to approve the curriculum, and even though those who favored the banned version outnumber those who don’t, he doesn’t see them voting to simply recreate it.

He said the threat of losing large amounts of funding will ensure the curriculum complies with the law, and both the state law and the court order are clear in their requirements.

“You put those two mandates side by side and there’s not a lot of air between them,” said Stegeman, a Democrat who supported some of the concepts of the old Mexican American Studies program but not the political elements of it. Stegeman was targeted for criticism by Pima County Democrats when he spoke against the program and described it in court as brainwashing.

It will be up to Huppenthal to determine whether the classes comply.

His spokeswoman, Molly Edwards, said in a written statement that the first order of business will be to make sure the curriculum complies and that the classroom lessons comply, although she didn’t say how the classroom could be monitored once the doors are closed.

One of Huppenthal’s criticisms of a compliance audit he commissioned in 2011 to scrutinize the old program was that the auditors who visited the classrooms were deceived by teachers who modified their lessons while being watched.

The desegregation plan stems from a 1974 discrimination lawsuit against the district brought by African American and Latino students. The suit was settled in 1978, and the Mexican American Studies program, originally known as La Raza Studies, was established in 1998 under that settlement, but the program wasn’t subject to court supervision.

A federal judge ended oversight of the district in 2009, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision. Bury appointed a Special Master to work with the parties to come up with the new plan.

Horne targeted the program after civil rights icon Dolores Huerta told students at an April 2006 assembly that “Republicans hate Latinos.”

Horne, who was the Superintendent of Public Instruction at the time, followed up on Huerta’s speech by sending his top deputy, Margaret Garcia Dugan, to provide students with an opposing view. During Dugan’s speech, some students raised their fists in the air and turned their backs on her before walking out.


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