Tucson School District Ethnic Studies

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Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal discusses his final ruling that the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American Studies Program violates state law.

Ted Simons: Good evening, and welcome to Arizona horizon. I'm Ted Simons. Tucson unified school district's governing board voted 4-1 to immediately suspend the district's Mexican-American studies program. The move comes after a judge agreed with the determination bite state schools Chief John Huppenthal that the program violates state law. That law passed in 2010 by state lawmakers was designed to address the Tucson district's ethnic studies program. It allows the state board of education or the state superintendent to direct the department of education to withhold 10% of the district's state aid funding for violating the law. The Tucson unified district faced losing about $15 million had it not suspended its ethic studies program. Here to talk about the district's decision and where we go from here is state superintendent of public instruction, John Huppenthal. Good to see you again. Thanks for joining us.

John Huppenthal: It's great to be here.

Ted Simons: Your thoughts on the resolution down there to suspend that program.

John Huppenthal: I think the board has finally come to grips with the problem, so we think that was very positive.

Ted Simons: How can this program, though, be overhauled to comply with state law? How do you get that done?

John Huppenthal: I think one of the things they were in violation of was state law, they never at any time had brought the ethnic studies curriculum up to the school board and gotten it approved. Despite all the controversy, they never took those steps to say, hey, the school board is supposed to be in control, we have this controversy, and I've been in this business for 25 years, be it a zoning controversy at the corner, the first thing you do is convene the parties and have an active discussion. Those things, school board taking control, never took place. Essentially you had factions come into a school district and take control of classrooms.

Ted Simons: Just to make sure, talk about what the judge found, what your report found, lessons weren't reviewed, there was no syllabus, teachers would just come in and pretty much do what they wanted to do when they wanted to do it, with what they wanted to use.

John Huppenthal: There was no curriculum that you could identify. We came up with thousands of pages by which we could make our determination about what was going on in the classrooms, but in the sense of having an organized curriculum that somebody from the community could come in and say what's going on in these classrooms, this is what they're teaching in week Wynn, two, three, none of those healthy discussions ever took place.

Ted Simons: That would be an underlying concern. Again, in terms of the law promoting resentment, advocating ethic solidarity over students, as opposed to individuals, and the course is designed for pupils of a particular ethnic group. That's what violates the law. How can this program comply?

John Huppenthal: I think you start with the fundamentals of good curriculum development. And you have the people in the district lay it all out. What's going to be taught week by week, and what's going to be in there, what books are going to be used, how are those books going to be used? You can use controversial books if you do it correctly. If you're teaching, you're not using it a as a bible, but as an instrument for analytical and analyzing history, those types things.

Ted Simons: So what constitutes promoting resentment?

John Huppenthal: The record, there were thousands of pages were replete with examples of how -- and some were very ghastly about what they would have kids do and the exercises they would have kids go through. So when we took this out for independent examination, the judge did a very thorough job, he agreed with this, that there was a solid case that they had violated the law. And going past what the legislature might pass, they violated just -- these are things that are completely inappropriate to be doing in public school classrooms, really inappropriate to be doing anywhere in society.

Ted Simons: As far as the district is concerned, they need to figure out what to do to continue this program or find ways to get some of this information into a heavily Latino student population, which is important for them to be educated in these -- I think we would agree. But advocating ethnic solidarity over students as individuals, how does a Mexican-American studies program avoid that?

John Huppenthal: Well, some of it, when you look at the examples, I mean, I don't want to go in depth in the examples because any particular example could be dismissed. It was replete through this in how they were overtly polarizing. The reference the founders of the ethnic studies crick limb use, they want to erase the minds of the classes. They put that out there and then the examples they did was -- could you clearly see the linkage between what they said would be the direction of the programs and how that was enacted. It was very polarizing. The judge was very careful and I've been very careful to say that sometimes in history you're teaching historical incidents and even I when I read history, sometimes I'm shocked. And it has a racial context, but we all want to have -- teach this history and injustice in a way we're all working for a better tomorrow, not working for oh, boy I want to get even.

Ted Simons: In that respect, the district does have African-American studies, Native American studies, Asian-American studies, these are all down there as well, correct?

John Huppenthal: Correct. And we've never heard any complaints about this, and the evidence that we have looked at, they're really working hard on the academic achievement issues. Tucson Unified School District has 32-D rated schools that serve low-income Hispanic communities, the Hispanics in those schools are getting academic gains below statewide averages for Hispanics. And well below statewide averages. We view this whole controversy over Mexican-American studies as a distraction from the main mission. If these kids are going to have equal opportunity, they need above average economic gains to catch up. They're nowhere close to that.

Ted Simons: We kept hearing there were academic gains among the students who took the program.

John Huppenthal: That was a lack of a rigorous evaluation of those studies. If you compare students at different grade levels, the students at higher grade levels always have higher graduation rates. Once you compared the apples to apples that advantage for Mexican-American studies disappeared.

Ted Simons: That was inaccurate?

John Huppenthal: That was inaccurate.

Ted Simons: How do you verify compliance? To make sure they're doing what they say they're going to do?

John Huppenthal: I think it starts with your school board. And it also -- we're going to be Google doing good faith analysis. There are a lot of people, the situation is sort of a super charged right now. And so if they attempt to take this underground say it's going to be business as usual and we're going to keep teaching these lesson plans, we're going to pick this up very quickly. We're going to do a monitoring, but we want that school board and the peers are going to do -- this is a local control state. I'm a policymaker who's obsessed with local control. I'm telling them, get a healthy situation, what you're doing is unhealthy, get it under control. You take control. Don't let me get involved.

Ted Simons: Will you get involved in some way or the department get involved to help them out? To give them guidance, let them know what you're looking at and what you have a problem with?

John Huppenthal: Absolutely. We think they have a superintendent there, we've identified him as potentially among the top five superintendents over the last two decades, if that community will support him if that school board will support him, we think he has the ability to execute a good game plan. He's already taken the first step in the resolutions they've returned control of their schools to the principals. Unbelievably, they had a situation where people could come into classrooms in a school and not be under the supervision of the principal. That's how badly the situation had gotten. So now what they're -- with their resolution the principals are in control of their schools.

Ted Simons: And we should mention this is really in the over as far as the courts are concerned. A judge did say if a couple students as far as first amendment rights and such, they can proceed if they so choose. So we could still see court action here.

John Huppenthal: Yes. At the federal level, but we view what the federal judge did as significantly holding us up. They refused to give us preliminary injunction. So we can proceed on through to remedy and in our remedies we'll be able to illustrate those students, we have not -- done nothing to damage their free speech rights. We have strengthened their speech rights by getting them a broad-based curriculum that allows them to analyze all aspects of history, including injustices.

Ted Simons: Good to have you here. Thanks for joining us.

John Huppenthal: It's always great to be here.

John Huppenthal:Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction;

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