Tucson schools go ahead with Mexican-American studies, risking $14M in state funds

A four-year-old controversy regarding the teaching of so-called “ethnic studies” in an Arizona school district is once again at the forefront, after Superintendent H.T. Sánchez of the Tucson Unified School District is authorizing the expansion of the courses – which involve mostly Mexican- and African-American studies.

By doing so, Sanchez is risking $14 million in state aid.

The program was first canceled in 2010 after former Ariz. Governor Jan Brewer signed into law a bill that banned classes "designed for students of a particular ethnic group, promoted resentment or advocate ethnic solidarity over treating pupils as individuals, or promoted to overthrow the U.S. government”.

This threatened enforcement proceeding is nothing more than an attempt to circumvent the federal court orders denying the State's intervention.

— H.T. Sánchez

After a lengthy battle, TUSD dropped the courses in 2012. The next year the courses were redeveloped and reintroduced to follow a federal racial desegregation order that required the school district to implement a “socially and culturally relevant curriculum.”

Sánchez, in the post since July 2013, believes that order trumps any state ban and is standing firm.

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“Ethnic studies programs, from a Mexican-American point of view or and African American point of view, are not about teaching hatred or teaching distrust against any group of people… it’s a matter of appreciating the contributions of African American and Latino people,” Sánchez said in a press conference this week.

Three schools in the Tucson district are currently teaching the courses, and four more will start by the end of the second semester.

Former Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, John Huppenthal, a strong promoter of the ban, sent a notice of non-compliance to TUSD on his last day of office, threatening to cut state funding to the schools.

The letter, dated January 2nd, said TUSD “has failed to provide complete information to Arizona Department of Education regarding its revision to its curricula for culturally relevant English, United States History and United States Government classes”.

Huppenthal also writes: “While TUSD's original violations related to classes taught from the Mexican American perspective, it now appears that some TUSD classes taught from the African-American perspective also violate the law."

By way of example, the former conservative state senator points out to lyrics of Rage Against The Machine’s “Take The Power Back,” used in the curriculum of a class at Cholla Magnet High School. He says the content violates the ban by promoting “ethnic solidarity”.

Huppenthal also takes issue with hip-hop in the classroom, pointing to a class that taught an explanation of Hip Hop by New York rapper KRS-One.

Huppenthal says the Arizona Department of Education will be required to withhold ten percent of TUSD’s state aid if the school does not come into compliance by March 4, 2015. That comes out to about $14 million the district could see cut.

“This threatened enforcement proceeding is nothing more than an attempt to circumvent the federal court orders denying the State's intervention. It seeks to undermine our compliance with the curriculum mandates of the Unitary Status Plan,” responded Sánchez in a statement.

According to the Associated Press, newly instated Republican state Superintendent Diane Douglas is siding with her predecessor.

She says she does support the need for ethnic studies, and approves of the general curriculum, but has an issue with how the classes are actually being taught.  She told the AP she believes the content isn’t “culturally relevant” from a Latino or African-American perspective.

She said the Arizona Department of Education will go ahead with the funding cut if the courses aren’t amended.

Sánchez met with Douglas Wednesday, and he remains optimistic that the situation will not go that far.

“That doesn't mean there will not be challenges. I'm sure there will be. But I feel very confident that we will be able to be able to work these challenges out,” said Sánchez.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments in a lawsuit against Arizona officials who eliminated the Mexican-American Studies curriculum on Jan. 12 in San Francisco.