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Federal judge rules state law banning ‘ethnic studies’ illegal

Superintendent Diane Douglas says she'll seek "legislative remedy" to the ruling

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Declaring the law unconstitutional, a federal judge on Wednesday permanently blocked the state Department of Education from restricting “ethnic studies” programs in the Tucson Unified School District — or even demanding information from the school officials about what is being taught.

But it remains to be seen what changes the school board might enact now that they’ve been freed from state oversight.

Judge Wallace Tashima, a President Clinton appointee, said state lawmakers acted illegally in 2010 in making it illegal for any schools to have courses that promote the overthrow of the federal government, promote resentment toward a race or class of people, are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group, or “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”

The judge not only barred state education officials from enforcing the law but said they cannot threaten to withhold state funds for noncompliance. It was precisely that threatened loss of more than $14 million which caused the district to scrap the original program and replace it with what it calls “culturally relevant curricula.”

Wallace Tashima

Wallace Tashima

More to the point, Tashima told Diane Douglas, the current state Superintendent of Public Instruction she cannot conduct “any inspections or audits of any program, curriculum or course” at the district to verify compliance with the 2010 law.

For the moment, that is an academic victory.

In 2015, shortly after taking office, Douglas declared that what replaced Mexican American Studies complies with the 2010 law. And Douglas spokesman Dan Godzich said Wednesday his boss is not now requiring any sort of reports.

This afternoon, Douglas released a statement expressing her disappointment at the ruling. She said she will discuss it with legislators in a meeting next week.

“My first item on the agenda will be to see if we can find a legislative remedy to the judge’s ruling,” she said. “I am supportive of teaching history and cultural studies, but I don’t understand why the Judge felt he needed to strike down the entire law. The  provisions that prevent taxpayer dollars being used for classes that promote the overthrow of the United States Government or promote resentment towards a race or class of people just sound like common sense to me. Those should stay.”

While there appear not to be the votes to reinstate the original program, Tashima’s ruling opens the door to the governing board reinserting some of the elements into what is now being taught.

There also is some question of whether Wednesday’s order is the last word. A spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office said no decision has been made whether to appeal.

The program, dating back to the late 1990s, was designed to provide culturally relevant curriculum for students by incorporating historical and contemporary Mexican-American contributions into classroom studies.

It came under fire in 2007 when a group of students walked out on a speech by Margaret Dugan, then the deputy state school chief. She was responding to a controversial speech where labor activist Dolores Huerta told students that “Republicans hate Latinos.”

That got the attention of Tom Horne, then her boss, who pushed for the 2010 law. John Huppenthal, who followed Horne as schools chief, subsequently declared the Tucson program in violation of law and threatened to withhold aid.

Parents responded by filing this lawsuit.

In an initial ruling earlier this year, Tashima said the law violated the rights of students “because both enactment and enforcement were motivated by racial animus.” But he left it until Wednesday to issue the injunction.

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