Is Tucson Unified School District’s MAS suspension at odds with a
decades old federal desegregation order?
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.
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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 typesâ€¦) 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 thoseâ€¦honestly this law wonâ€
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 districtâ€
SYLVIA CAMPOY, MENDOZA PLAINTIFFâ€
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 Tucsonâ€
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 upâ€”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 thatâ€
VOICEOVER: TUSD board president Mark Stegeman says that many proponents of the MAS courses tend to overstate the programâ€
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 districtâ€
SYLVIA CAMPOY, MENDOZA PLAINTIFFâ€
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 boardâ€
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 doesnâ€
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 beenâ€”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 thatâ€¦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 â€œmulticultural studiesâ€ curriculum instead. Some state officials like Arizona superintendant John Huppenthal have indicated that they may also consider targeting ethnic studies at the university level. Tucsonâ€