Huppenthal: TUSD's ethnic studies violate law; audit says otherwise
Independent study ordered by schools chief says MAS doesn't break law
TUSD's ethnic studies classes violate state law, according to state schools chief John Huppenthal, despite a state-ordered audit that draws different conclusions.
The move means TUSD has 60 days to bring the courses into compliance or lose 10 percent of its funding, about $15 million, from the state.
Classes in the Mexican American Studies department at Tucson Unified School District were the subject of a law, A.R.S. §15-112, pushed last year by former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne—who's now the state attorney general.
The MAS program was the subject of a review by the state Department of Education, which claims it violates the new law that forbids classes aimed at a specific ethnic group. The MAS classes, along with African American, Native American, and Pan Asian studies courses, are part of a "unitary status" agreement that ended court supervision of TUSD's desegregation programs.
The review, performed by an outside contractor, contradicts Huppenthal's announcement Wednesday, saying there's no evidence that TUSD has violated the law, although some course material is inappropriately political.
"During the curriculum audit period, no observable evidence was present to suggest that any classroom within Tucson Unified School District is in direct violation of the law A.R.S. 15-112," the audit said.
"In most cases, quite the opposite is true," said the audit. "Consider, if classes promoted resentment or ethnic solidarity, then evidence of an ineffective learning community would exist within each school aligned with the Mexican American Studies department. That was not the case. Every school and every classroom visited by the auditors affirmed that these learning communities support a climate conducive to student achievement."
Associate Superintendent Kathy Hrabluk, in reviewing the audit, found that the district's ethnic studies courses don't meet curriculum development standards.
"This decision is not about politics, it is about education," said Huppenthal, a Republican who campaigned on halting the MAS program.
"In my role as State Superintendent of Public Instruction, I have a legal responsibility to uphold the law and a professional imperative to ensure every student has access to an excellent education."
Huppenthal offered no suggestions as to how TUSD could bring its ethnic studies classes into compliance with the law.
"We're a strong local-control state. Now it's up to the Tucson Unified School District to come into compliance," he said.
TUSD Superintendent John Pedicone said Wednesday he wasn't sure if TUSD would appeal the decision, which the Governing Board said in January it would do when Horne declared that the program violated the new law.
"We're in the process of looking at the decision," Pedicone said. "We didn't know what the determination would look like, because we've been operating on a belief that we were in compliance (with the law)."
The TUSD Governing Board will hold an executive session Friday to determine its next steps, Pedicone said.
Pedicone has previously pushed for the district to put more focus on curriculum. TUSD has hired a deputy superintendent to oversee curriculum development.
District not given copy of audit
Huppenthal's office has yet to release copies of the audit in electronic form, citing difficulties with the Department of Education's computer systems. TucsonSentinel.com obtained a copy of the audit, and posted it online Thursday.
TUSD had not received a copy of the audit as of Thursday morning, said Pedicone's executive assistant, Karen Bynum.
Paper copies were made available at a Wednesday press conference in Phoenix.
Supporters of the program say the law, and Wednesday's decision, are political moves.
"To claim that our cultural heritage is not valid or relevant to be taught within a public education system is appalling," said a Wednesday night statement from the student group UNIDOS.
"We released yesterday our own findings where we embraced Ethnic Studies for the profound impact it has made in students’ lives. Why isn’t Huppenthal listening to the students he is supposed to represent? Why would he cut a program that tremendously supports students in bridging the “drop-out” gap? Extreme hatred, racism and discrimination are John Huppenthal’s sole motivations," the group said.
"This decision should not be seen as an attack on Mexican-American kids; it's an attack on Tucson's local control of its schools," said Miguel Ortega, a member of the MAS Community Advisory Board and a former school board candidate.
"I think that everyone expected this (decision)," Ortega said, calling on Pedicone to appeal the decision and for the district to join a suit against the law filed by a group of TUSD teachers.
"Superintendent Huppenthal's unfortunate and intentional mischaracterization of Tucson Unified School District's Mexican-American studies course hardly surprises anyone," said Pima County Democratic Party Chair Jeff Rogers in a news release.
"He used Tucson high school kids as a political football during the campaign, pledging to continue the humiliation of Arizona's Latino Community. His mind was made up for him long ago by his Far Right supporters, who love nothing more than pitting neighbor against neighbor along racial lines. Sadly this is nothing new for extreme Phoenix Republicans in their ongoing effort to run Tucson from Phoenix," he said.
A.R.S. §15-112 reads as follows:
Prohibited courses and classes; enforcement
A. A school district or charter school in this state shall not include in its Program of instruction any courses or classes that include any of the following:
- 1. Promote overthrowing the U.S. government;
- 2. Promote resentment towards a race or class of people;
- 3. Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic race; and
- 4. Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.
Huppenthal found TUSD violated the following sections of the law, he said in a press release:
§15-112 A (2) – Promote resentment towards a race or class of people: Materials gathered by, and submitted to, the Arizona Department of Education, as well as the materials the auditors reviewed contained content promoting resentment towards a race or class of people.
§15-112 A (3) – Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic race: In addition to the reviewed classroom materials and instructional content, the Mexican American Studies Department website clearly indicates the Program is primarily designed for pupils of a particular ethnic race.
§15-112 A (4) – Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals: Reviewed Mexican American Studies Program materials repeatedly emphasize the importance of building Latino nationalism and unity versus identifying students as individuals.
Audit: Classes don't break law
The audit, performed by Cambium Learning Inc., of Miami Lakes, Fla., doesn't support any of Huppenthal's findings. In fact, classroom observers found the exact opposite of what the schools chief announced:
No observable evidence exists that instruction within Mexican American Studies Department promotes resentment towards a race or class of people. The auditors observed the opposite, as students are taught to be accepting of multiple ethnicities of people.
The majority of evidence demonstrates that the Mexican American Studies Department's instruction is NOT designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.
No evidence as seen by the auditors exists to indicate that instruction within Mexican American Studies Department program classes advocates ethnic solidarity; rather it hs been proven to treat student (sic) as individuals.
Huppenthal found fault with parts of the audit he ordered.
"Two-thirds of the final audit report was beyond the scope of the legal determination I am making today," he said, citing concerns with the audit.
"Tucson Unified School District Administration knew which week the on-sight classroom reviews and interviews would be taking place. In addition, only 37 percent of the Mexican American Studies Program classrooms were observed. Most classrooms were visited just once and for only 30 minutes," Huppenthal said.
"Few materials were available to be observed in the classroom or were provided to the auditors," he said. "While invited to participate in the curriculum audit process, key leadership in the Mexican American Studies Department refused to cooperate – including the Director of the Department," he said.
"Throughout this investigation, it became very apparent that the evidence provided by the independent curriculum audit and the totality of all the information gathered, that the Tucson Unified School District Governing Board failed to provide the statutorily required curriculum development and oversight of its Mexican American Studies Program," Huppenthal said.
"The Tucson Unified School District Governing Board failed to comply not only to state statutes, but with its own adopted policies on curriculum development and its text and materials approval process," he said.
"There is a serious breach of policy, protocol and public trust as defined by the absence of an established curriculum," Hrabluk said:
During the course of our investigation, it became apparent that the Mexican American Studies Department operates in a vacuum with essentially little to no oversight from the school district.
Mexican American Studies Department teachers travel from school to school conducting their classes. Principals are not allowed to conduct classroom visits within their own schools of Mexican American Studies Program classes to ascertain student learning levels, quality of instruction, and appropriateness of instructional materials.
Mexican American Studies Department teachers did not share their student work or testing information with the auditors. These teachers indicated that they do not keep student work throughout the year.
Auditors did find that the MAS courses lack a formal curriculum.
"The auditors did not find a well-defined, solitary document that provided the integrated, comprehensive guidance needed to direct, monitor, and assess effective curriculum development," the report said.
Some books found in ethnic studies classrooms contain political commentary inappropriate for students, while other books aren't grade-appropriate, auditors said.
"Evidence indicates three of the nine MASD curriculum units analyzed by the auditors contain an overabundance of controversial commentary inclusive of political tomes of personal activism and bias...," the report said.
The primary opponent of TUSD's ethnic studies program has been former schools chief Tom Horne.
Horne pushed for a law effectively banning the courses after a 2006 incident at Tucson High.
After activist Dolores Huerta gave a speech to students, commenting the "Republicans hate Latinos," Horne sent his deputy superintendent to speak at the high school.
Margaret Dugan, a Latina Republican, rebutted Huerta's remarks, and was met by students who turned their backs on her and raised their fists in the air as she spoke, protesting that Dugan wouldn't take student questions.
Both Horne and Dugan referred to the incident whenever discussing TUSD's MAS program, calling it a result of students' classroom instruction.
After years of work, Horne helped push a law—HB 2281— affecting the program through the Legislature last year. In his last days as state schools chief, he declared that TUSD was in violation.
Huppenthal announced he would conduct his own investigation into the program when he took office in January.
Created to help desegregate Tucson schools
TUSD created the various ethnic studies courses—including Mexican-American, African American, Native American, and Pan Asian studies courses, as part of a "unitary status" agreement that ended court supervision of TUSD's desegregation programs.
The courses began 13 years ago. A federal judge lifted oversight in 2008, but TUSD agreed to maintain the classes and other desegregation programs developed during three decades of court supervision.
Mexican-American Studies classes include alternatives to traditional history, literature and art courses.
Supporters say the classes lead to increased student involvement in school and higher graduation rates.
Disclosure: Dylan Smith’s wife is a teacher in the Tucson Unified School District.