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Ruling on ethnic students program splits Arizona community

Years ago, many urban school districts around the country created ethnic studies programs in an effort to help minority students succeed in the classroom and learn about their heritage. 

The Tucson Unified School District in Arizona was no exception, considering about 61 percent of the student population there is Hispanic. 

The courses first started being offered a little more than ten years ago but top education officials in the state say the program has spiraled out of control in recent years because of failed oversight.

Now the issue has a community divided.

John Huppenthal, Arizona’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, says somehow the district's "Mexican-American Studies Program" went rogue because the curriculum, lesson plans and textbooks stopped being approved by the school board at some point. 

The state's top school chief says that makes it in violation of state law because all materials being taught in Arizona classrooms must get the local board's seal of approval. In fact, his office launched an investigation that found that erroneous facts were being taught to the students and the classes promoted "racial resentment."

"We have no problem with a history class talking about historical injustices. It becomes problematic though when you take every historic event and you interpret it in racial terms, in a radical context and you use that to inflame a low income Hispanic minority against a white Caucasian majority. Then you're not talking about injustice. You're not talking about how each of us has individual rights and responsibilities for a better future. Now you're talking about getting even," Huppenthol told Fox News.

An administrative law judge in Arizona, Lewis Kowal, agreed with the investigation findings. The judge says teachers were presenting material in a biased, political and emotionally charged manner. Kowal's 37 page ruling went on to say the course was "designed for Latinos as a group that promoted racial resentment against 'Whites' and advocates ethnic solidarity of Latinos" After these statements were made, state education officials threatened to suspend millions of dollars in funding to the district unless the problem was fixed.

Supporters of the program have maintained the state's findings are bogus. They argue the classes are vital in teaching children about Chicano history, literature and social and justice. Teachers say they're insulted by the mere suggestion that they're promoting racism and students tell Fox the classes actually help them excel in their other mandated courses.

"We have the right to culture, history, affinity, language and education. We want an educational system where all cultures fit. Unidos we stand, divided we fall," one student says of the program. 

The issue came to a head this week when the Tucson Unified School Board voted 4-1 to halt the ethnic studies classes for the time being. TUSD's Superintendent, John Pedicone, says ethnic studies teachers are already reverting to core curriculum. The courses are gone but the department still remains as the district works on creating new classes that will combine core curriculum and some ethnic studies lessons, all in compliance with Arizona law.

Hundreds of students, parents and teachers are outraged over the school board's decision and there were some tense moments at the meeting.

"You're an autonomous board. You can appeal this decision… this racist decision… this ignorant decision that was made by the state. Do the right thing! Stand up for something they way I was taught. That if I go and stand for something I'm going to fall for anything. That's what you should have to do! That's what you need to do!" on teacher yelled. 

More than 100 students also staged a march this week, walking from their charter school to TUSD headquarters in protest.

A legal fight is already underway because of a federal lawsuit that was filed prior to this vote. Richard Martinez is a Tucson attorney representing the plaintiffs who says the state law could very well be a violation of the teachers' First Amendment rights. 

The American Civil Liberties Union has also expressed interest in helping appeal the school board’s decision. Supporters of Tucson's ethnic studies program say they're not going down without a fight and the issue certainly isn’t going away anytime soon.

To be continued…

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