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Is Tucson Unified School District’s MAS suspension at odds with a
decades old federal desegregation order?

Story Transcript

VOICEOVER: Tucson Unified School District has gained increasing national attention for the controversial suspension of its Mexican American Studies program in January. The TUSD school board voted 4 to 1 to end the program after the state of Arizona threatened to cut off millions of dollars in funding should the district not terminate the program immediately after it was found to be in violation of a state law banning ethnic studies. HB2281, signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer just weeks after the passage of immigration crackdown law SB1070, stipulates that schools are prohibited from teaching courses that are designed for students of a particular ethnic group, promote resentment or advocate ethnic solidarity over treating students as individuals, or advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government. TUSD school board member Michael Hicks was recently featured on a Daily Show segment where he discusses the ban.

MICHAEL HICKS: My concern was a lot of the radical ideas they were teaching in these classes telling these kids that this was their land and then the whites took it over and the only way to get out form under the gringo which is the white man was by bloodshed. (When you sat in on these classes what types…) I chose not to go to any of their classes, why even go, I based my thoughts on hearsay from others, so I based it off of those…honestly this law won’t be applied to any other of our courses, it was strictly written for one course, which is the Mexican American Studies program.

VOICEOVER: The TUSD board has not only faced pressure from the state government in Phoenix as well as a mobilized student-led opposition in Tucson: it is also still under a decades-old federal desegregation order. As part of a 2009 post unitary status plan that would lift federal oversight over the district’s desegregation efforts, the school board committed to expand Mexican American Studies as a program that was shown to be effective in helping to close achievement gaps between white students and minority students, who actually comprise the majority of the school population. But in 2011, the district again fell under federal oversight with the courts saying it had failed to demonstrate good faith compliance with the desegregation decree. Sylvia Campoy was TUSD’s first civil rights compliance officer, and has been involved with Tucson’s desegregation case for decades, serving as a representative of the Mendoza family, one of the plaintiffs involved in the original civil rights lawsuit filed in 1974 following the landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education decision.

SYLVIA CAMPOY, MENDOZA PLAINTIFF’S REPRESENTATIVE IN TUSD DESEG. CASE: As part of the post unitary plan MAS was doing exactly what should be done in addressing disparity for Latino students in the district. The district could have challenged the state, saying to the state of Arizona we’re not going to do what you’re asking us to do in eliminating MAS because we are under a court order a deseg order and in that order we have agreed to narrow the disparity for Latino kids in our district and one of those means in addressing disparity is our MAS program, they did not do that.

VOICEOVER: In March of 2012, a US district judge rejected a request by the Mendoza plaintiffs to reinstate the Mexican American Studies program. TUSD school board president Mark Stegeman rejects some of the criticism suggesting a lack of political will on behalf of the board members, asserting instead that the embattled board was acting in the best interests of the students.

DR. MARK STEGEMAN, PRESIDENT, TUSD SCHOOL BOARD: I think it’s been caught between the state government which has been very intrusive and aggressive on this issue and I won’t question people’s motivations, but I think that’s the fact. We’ve been caught to some extent with the federal desegregation order because we had committed under the court process to offer these courses. And then we ended up not doing that. The judges said that’s okay for now but there was some tension there, there’s no doubt about it. We’ve been caught between parts of the community that advocate very strongly for this program and parts of the community that are very opposed to it. So the efforts to achieve compromise failed and then we wound up in a very hard place, and in the end we decided it was in the best interests of the district as a whole and its students as a whole leaving aside the political issues to shut this program down and start over with something that we could more easily defended in the future and that had more solid foundations.

VOICEOVER: The foundations of Tucson’s 14-year old Mexican American Studies program can be traced back to an earlier period of civil rights struggle when schools were still legally segregated. Renowned community activist Salomon Baldenegro Sr. recalls his involvement in Tucson’s Chicano civil rights movement in the 60’s and 70’s. He explains how years of organizing and litigation laid the groundwork for the 1997 establishment of TUSD’s Mexican American Studies program, which he considers a key victory in the struggle for educational equality.

SALOMON BALDENEGRO, TUCSON CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST: We were looking to improve the achievement levels and the quality of the education levels as well as equalizing of the student bodies. And one of the issues that we raised was we picked up—see, in 1969, when the kids walked out of high school here in Tucson high school, matter of fact, right across the street, when they walked out of high school in protest, their first demand in 1969 was that there be a Mexican-American studies program established. In 74 we raised the same issue of achievement that we said things are happening here that should not be happening kids are dropping out, kids not learning. The kids are not being channeled into higher education, those who want to go to higher education. So we need to do something. So then we filed a lawsuit. Court found in our favor. Again, nothing happened for many years, it kind of laid there. Then in 1998, it emerged again, and that’s when it finally, as a result of another lawsuit, what we now know was just dismantled, in 1998 was established.

VOICEOVER: TUSD board president Mark Stegeman says that many proponents of the MAS courses tend to overstate the program’s successes, and that it wasn’t reaching a significant number of students in the district.

DR. MARK STEGEMAN, PRESIDENT, TUSD SCHOOL BOARD: There is evidence that the students who took the Mexican-American studies classes did better whether measured by graduation rates or by scores on standardized tests. But I think that point has been exaggerated for a couple of reasons. One is the evidence is there but it’s not extremely strong evidence and it hasn’t been subjected to rigorous statistical analysis. No one’s really gone in to that to see how significant the effects are. I think there was some effect, but it’s not clear it’s a big effect. And secondly, the number of students who were in that program was so small relative to the size of the district even the Latino population of the district, so we have over 30,000 Latino students in the district and we had several hundred students taking MAS classes.

VOICEOVER: But Sylvia Campoy contends that the program has been subjected to rigorous analysis on a number of occasions, and that the consistently high marks it received indicate that if it is not reaching enough students, then it should be expanded upon as was originally called for in the district’s unitary status desegregation plan.

SYLVIA CAMPOY, MENDOZA PLAINTIFF’S REPRESENTATIVE IN TUSD DESEG. CASE: The district needed to evaluate its programs, are they working at limiting narrowing disparity are they working t making all programs accessible affording equal opportunity to all students and I can tell you that looking at all data I have made available to me the only program that has been consistently evaluated over all these years from 97 when it was instated has been MAS it’s done self evaluation it’s done independent evaluation, scrutinized by the state, an independent consultant was brought in to evaluate the program under superintendent Huppenthal’s instruction it’s being evaluated again as we speak by UA all allegations come out giving the program excellent marks, it has narrowed disparity, it has increased graduation rates, decreased dropout rates, and has narrowed the achievement gap.

VOICEOVER: While the TUSD school board seems to wish the issue would go away, it has become a source of major contention in a state with already simmering racial tensions. Nolan Cabrera is an assistant professor of educational policy studies at the University of Arizona in Tucson. He explains how the school board’s attempts at de-politicizing the issue have failed to adequately consider the district’s painful history of segregation as well as the ways in which contemporary racial politics in Arizona have left many Latino students feeling targeted.

NOLAN CABRERA, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA: In many respects we went from de jure pre Brown vs. Board to de facto and so in many respects in cities across the country and Tucson not being unique in this the patterns of residential and high school segregation are equal to and sometimes higher than when we had Jim Crow laws in effect, there is some debate about measurement and how you determine segregation but the bottom line is we are not the integrated society people hoped for and just because a legal barrier went down in terms of integrating schools that doesn’t mean that a number of other barriers haven’t been removed as well…All too often you hear “oh the millennials are post racial” it’s really difficult for students in Tucson to reconcile this nonsensical notion of a post-racial society with the very overt notion of racial politics happening in this state, it’s not even covert, it’s right there in your face, all the time.

VOICEOVER: TUSD board president Mark Stegeman maintains that some of those involved in the fight to save Mexican American Studies have engaged in misleading and exaggerated discourse, and that it is not a civil rights issue.

DR. MARK STEGEMAN, PRESIDENT, TUSD SCHOOL BOARD: I think that the exaggerated rhetoric and the exaggerated accounts of what we’ve been doing have been pretty destructive. And I think it would have been—it would have been better if people have been more accurate in some of their descriptions of what was going on, and then we could have a debate about that…I don’t think that which courses you choose to offer is a civil rights issue. It’s a serious issue, it’s an important issue, but I don’t think it’s a civil rights issue.

VOICEOVER: Salomon Baldenegro feels that many community members disagree.

SALOMON BALDENEGRO, TUCSON CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST: What is outrageous, what is sad, what is maddening is that we have to fight this fight in the first place. That’s what I think most people are really upset about as I talk to people they say, why, we thought we already fought this fight and won and why do we have to refight it that’s what I think is something that a lot of us are feeling.

VOICEOVER: On Wednesday, April 4th, it was announced that the former MAS program director Sean Arce, himself involved in a separate lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the ethnic studies ban, would not have his contract renewed with TUSD. Administrators are planning on replacing the program with a “multicultural studies” curriculum instead. Some state officials like Arizona superintendant John Huppenthal have indicated that they may also consider targeting ethnic studies at the university level. Tucson’s most popular Latino activist blog Three Sonorans, a source of information for many following the ethnic studies debate, was recently pulled from its host site on The Tucson Citizen. Concerned students and community members are finding themselves increasingly alarmed over the perceived lack of democratic spaces for discussion and thought in twenty first century Arizona. However, with an energized student-led movement building off of decades of civil rights struggle in Tucson, it would appear that the Mexican American Studies fight is far from over.

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