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Judge: Law barring TUSD's ethnic studies unconstitutional, motivated by racism

Ruling: 2010 Arizona statute violates 1st & 14th amendments

A federal judge Tuesday found that a controversial 2010 Arizona law that targeted TUSD's ethnic studies classes is unconstitutional, and "enacted and enforced with a discriminatory purpose" by state politicians.

Decisions made by state officials under the law were "motivated by a desire to advance a political agenda by capitalizing on race-based fears," the judge ruled.

HB 2281, the state law championed by former Attorney General Tom Horne and former state school Superintendent John Huppenthal, barred ethnic studies courses in public schools, including Tucson Unified School District's Mexican American Studies program.

The law has been embroiled in legal controversy since its passage, with the state threatening to withhold 10 percent of TUSD's state funding if the district did not eliminate the MAS classes.

U.S. District Judge A. Wallace Tashima, who held a bench trial on the claims that the law is unconstitutional this summer after the case was returned for review by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2015, ruled Tuesday that the statute violates the U.S. Constitution.

The judge said he was "convinced that A.R.S. § 15-112 was enacted and enforced with a discriminatory purpose."

TUSD Governing Board members did not have the opportunity to immediately comment on the ruling, as they were moving between an executive session and a scheduled regular meeting when informed of the decision by TucsonSentinel.com. After the meeting, at which they announced a choice for a new district superintendent, Boardmember Adelita Grijalva said that she had already asked that a discussion on TUSD's options be placed on the next meeting's agenda.

Attorneys representing TUSD students had claimed that the law violated their 1st and 14th amendment rights, violating their rights of free speech and that it was passed in order to facilitate discrimination. The judge found in their favor.

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Enactment of the law led to repeated protests by students in the ethnic studies program, however, in January of 2012, the TUSD board elected to axe ethnic studies when state education officials threatened to withhold up to $15 million in funding for TUSD unless the program was dropped.

"Huppenthal’s anonymous blog comments are the most important evidence, as they plainly show that he harbored animus," Tashima wrote in his decision.

".. the Court finds Horne and Huppenthal did not testify credibly regarding their own motivations. The passage and enforcement of the law against the MAS program were motivated by anti-Mexican-American attitudes," the judge wrote.

The "plaintiffs have proven their First Amendment claim by proving that no legitimate pedagogical objective motivated the enactment and enforcement of A.R.S. § 15-112 against the MAS program. First, defendants had no legitimate basis for believing that the MAS program was promoting racism such that eliminating it would reduce racism," the judge ruled.

"Huppenthal’s comments describing his 'eternal' 'war' against the MAS program, Ex. 104, expose his lack of interest in the welfare of TUSD students, who would be the focus of legitimate pedagogical concern if one existed," the judge ruled. "Those comments reveal instead a fixation on winning a political battle against a school district. Having thus ruled out any pedagogical motivation, the Court is convinced that decisions regarding the MAS program were motivated by a desire to advance a political agenda by capitalizing on race-based fears."

Grijalva and Boardmember Kristel Foster noted that if the district decided to move ahead with a form of MAS courses, rather than the current "culturally relevant curriculum" specified under the most recent court order in the decades-old desegregation case, it would require approval from the special master and federal judge.

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Will Seberger/TucsonSentinel.com

Chanting MAS supporters shut down an April 2012 TUSD Governing Board meeting as some zip-tied themselves together and a smoke bomb was set off. During the meeting, the board voted to fire Sean Arce, then the director of the program