Tucson Unified School District Ethnic Studies

More from this show

Mark Stegeman, President of the Tucson Unified School District Governing Board, and Raul Aguirre, Chairman of the Mexican American Studies Community Advisory Board, discuss the decision by the district to suspend its Mexican American Studies program.

José Cárdenas: Thank you for joining us. The Tucson Unified chool district's governing board voted last week to suspend the district's Mexican-American studies program. The decision came after a judge agreed with state schools chief John Huppenthal's finding that the program was ethically divisive and violated state law restricting ethnic studies courses. The Tucson Unified School District faced losing about $15 million if it had not suspended its ethnic studies program. We'll talk to the president of the school district governing board and the chairman of the Mexican-American studies community advisory board in a moment, but first here is what Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal said last week on Arizona Horizon about how he thinks the program can comply with state law.

Ted Simons: How can this program 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 state law, they never at any time had brought the 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 of your constituents. 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 that we talk about what the judge found. What your report found, lessons weren't reviewed, there was no standard curriculum, no syllabus, teachers would pretty much do what they wanted to do, with what they wanted to use.

John Huppenthal: Yes. There was no curriculum you could really identify. We came up with thousands of pages by which we could make our determination about what was going on in those classes. 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, that kind of thing, none of those kind of healthy discussions ever took place.

José Cárdenas: Here with me to talk about the district's decision and what will happen next week is Mark Stegeman president of the Tucson Unified Governing Board and Raul Aguirre, chairman of the Mexican-American Studies Community Advisory Board. Thank you both for joining us on "Horizonte." What I'd like to do is summarize how we got here and ask some questions about the most recent rendition. So we have a decision by Superintendent Huppenthal to investigate the program. He commissions an audit by group the campaign group. They come back with 120-page decision, or analysis that says there's no violation of the state law. The superintendent is not satisfied with that, he conducts his own investigation and comes out with what looks to be about a page and a half decision saying there is a violation. We then end up in front of the administrative law judge who issues a 37-page decision in December 27th of last year, and then the decision which is in early January, adopted by the -- accepted by the superintendent, then your board meets last week to decide what to do. Fair enough summary? So the decision was made not to appeal. The ALJ's decision. But rather to scrap the program at least for now.

Mark Stegeman: Yes.

José Cárdenas: So tell us why that decision was made.

Mark Stegeman: I think different board members, it was a 4-1 vote and different reasons. But one of my reasons was that we were unlikely to prevail in the end. We could have appealed the decision, challenged the law on constitutional grounds. We might or might not have prevailed, but even if we had prevailed, we had clear signals the legislature would come back with another law designed to withstand that challenge. And so some of us felt it would prolong the agony.

José Cárdenas: And so that decision was made, there's another more rendition, Raul, I'd like your reaction to it, the school district as I understand, not the board, but the district just recently issued a list of books that it said -- that it took out of the classroom. And that's generated a lot of controversy.

Mark Stegeman: Yes. The district was in negotiations with Huppenthal's office to say what do we need to do to satisfy you to comply to avoid the financial sanction, and I think that list of seven books rose out of those discussions. Those books had never been properly approved on to approval process, they may be reinstated after we go through a process of recreating the curriculum, but they had never been properly approved and the state superintendent felt we needed to take those books out to cover the compliance.

José Cárdenas: That was a decision of the district.

Mark Stegeman: Yes. And that never came through the board.

José Cárdenas: Before I go to Raul, the statement that's on the website for the school district, doesn't say it was because of discussions of superintendent, it says these were books that were mentioned in the ALJ's opinion. That seems to be the rationale for pulling them out.

Mark Stegeman: Yeah, I don't remember those were specifically mentioned. Maybe they were, there were 37 pages of findings. So that may be the -- part of the rationale. But I think ultimately we were trying to do what we needed to do to take the program apart to a degree that would satisfy the Arizona department of education, and then we want to immediately commence to put something back together that satisfies both board policy and statute.

José Cárdenas: Raul, your group is not one that just came together in connection with the most current controversy, you've been involved for about 12 years? Give us quick history.

Raul Aguirre: It's a community board made of academics, business owners, students, community leaders to advise the Mexican-American studies department how to deal with students. The Latino drop-out rate is huge, so this program was one of the most and the only most affected program, so being dismantled is a disservice to those students. I think -- I take issue with the secretary Huppenthal that the curriculum was never approved. He makes it sound the teachers started teaching these courses. This is courses being taught by very dedicated, very passionate, very well read teachers who are really community minded and who developed a curriculum. What I think bothered the superintendent and many members of the board is that it promoted critical thinking. It promoted students to work in the community, it promoted students to be engaged. And it was so successful, about 70% of all the students who took those courses went to college. No other program has that kind of a record. So we feel the law is unconstitutional, we feel the board needed to stand up against the legislature who continues to hold them hostage. Just based on local control, local autonomy. Having the courage to say no to a bad law that only targets Mexican-American studies. This is not really a law that bans ethnic studies. It's not against ethnic studies. It's not against African-American studies. It's not against Native American studies. It's solely against Mexican-American studies and it started -- part after political ploy by the legislature to attack and harass the Mexican-American community of students.

José Cárdenas: But is it a legitimate criticism that there doesn't seem to be a standard curriculum for it?

Raul Aguirre: As far as we know, there is a standard curriculum. There is books, there is syllabus, there is lesson plans. Everything that a student needed to have, it's just as ridiculous to make that assertion saying that as Dr. Stegeman testified in one of the hearings that it's a cult, because it's divisive. To be honest, every class that I observed started with a poem which is an indigenous word that means what I do to you, I do to myself. So really, they invoke the golden rule every morning, so how can that be promoting racial resentment? That is ridiculous. That is not true. Nor I have to ask you, and I ask all the time, has any student who took this course tried to overthrow the government of the United States? Five of my kids have gone through the course and they're very patriotic, and very American, and very much concentrated in the future of our country.

José Cárdenas: Let me ask you this, Dr. Stegeman, even if that's a legitimate criticism that there's no standard curriculum that didn't go through the process, and that seemed to be superintendent Huppenthal's biggest concern, that's not what the statute prohibits. That's not the basis for my decision, the basis for my decision is that there's at least -- I can quote directly from the decision, that there's at least one course or evidence that there's at least one course that promotes --

Raul Aguirre: Racial solidarity?

José Cárdenas: Ethnic solidarity. What she says is the examples establish that Mexican-American studies program has classes or courses designed for Latinos as a group that promotes racial resentments against whites and advocates ethnic solidarity. That was the judge's finding. Specifically said, look, the problems with the development of the curriculum, that's not the issue.

Mark Stegeman: No, that wasn't -- I think that's an issue for the board, because it wasn't properly developed either in terms of statute or board policy. But that certainly was not the issue in the hearing. The department of education never alleged that the program was supporting overthrow of the government. But it did make those other allegations such as you just read, the -- they compiled thousands of pages of testimony of evidence and there were dozens of hours of testimony and I'm not qualified to judge whether the decision was correct, I'm not a lawyer. But in the end, there was a lot of evidence that things were going on that I think that even the board wasn't comfortable with, and the judge made his decision.

Raul Aguirre: But didn't students, they went into -- African-American students testified they took the courses, Angelo students went and testified, they took this courses, they never felt uncomfortable, they felt particularly one of the teachers Mr. Accosta was very giving, very much into unity, the clap that you thought maybe a little cultish, just like -- the clap is -- it started with Cesar Chavez in the civil rights movement, it's a unity clap. As a matter of fact that's what it's called.

Mark Stegeman: My testimony was a very, very small part of this hearing process. I was subpoenaed, I was put under oath and I made certain statements based on what I saw in the classes that reflected my sincere opinion. It was a small part of the state's case.

José Cárdenas: Let me ask you this, the statute which prohibits courses that promote resentment toward a race or class of people and are designed primarily for pupils after particular ethnic group and advocate solidarity, that seems statute says it doesn't prohibit instruction of the Holocaust any other instance of genocide or -- based on ethnicity, race, or class. So how do you handle what seems to be somewhat contradictory provisions? What kind of Mexican-American studies program would pass muster with the governing board?

Mark Stegeman: I opposed the law. I regretted the fact the district never took a position, never lobbied against the law. We didn't lobby against the law partly because our staff felt that the rules in the law were reasonable and we didn't violate them. That was really a staff decision. One of the problems in the law is that the language is vague. And that is the basis of the constitutional challenge some of the teachers brought. And I don't know the legal validity of that challenge, but from a common sense viewpoint, certainly the law is vague.

Raul Aguirre: He's not even telling you -- what you have to do, what kind of programmatic approach. All we hear is the curriculum base kind of solution, but the curriculum was there, banning books, I think is also a horrible idea. Even The Tempest I believe is going to be banned or --

Mark Stegeman: No, that was a blogger --

José Cárdenas: Let's talk about that. Do you have the list, the statement put out by the district on -- in terms of what books or --

Mark Stegeman: I don't know if I have that. I know pretty much what it says. There were seven books, The Tempest was not on them, that was a myth. But there were seven books that were used in the curriculum that we've not banned. They're still in the school library, but we have taken them out of the curriculum. Partly because they were never properly approved and partly because we felt this was what was necessary to come into compliance. This does not mean those books could not come back in --

José Cárdenas: On that point, necessary to come into compliance -- the statute doesn't prohibit you from having books, that may take a particular point of view or that may discuss -- it's focused on the courses that sell themselves and whether they promote resentment and as I understand it, neither Superintendent Horne nor his successor ever went into any classroom as superintendent to observe whether that -- and so if the use of the books isn't prohibited, why take them out of the classroom?

Mark Stegeman: Let me get back to your point about the ambiguity in the law. There is vagueness in the law. The way I understand the meaning of the law is that it's important to teach about oppression, it's important to teach about historical conflict, including ethnic conflict, that's part of history. And we can't avoid it. There's been a lot of us versus them throughout all of history. The question for the classes is, did it put students into one sighted of an us versus them debate, so the issue that I think the statute is trying to address, not very well, and I think the issue for some of the board members is that the curriculum did too much to put students into advocacy for one viewpoint. And the books are just one part of that implicit curriculum. The books themselves are not central, and I don't think there's anything wrong with using controversial books. It's the way they are used. And staff's decision was at least for now we need to take those books out. And then we'll start over with an approval process.

José Cárdenas: Raul, how do we construct a Mexican-American studies program that satisfies the statute and that doesn't as the superintendents says, focus perhaps on one side of the discussion?

Raul Aguirre: You know, when you creating students to be critical thinkers, have you to be able to demonstrate to them an open mind. It is so frustrating for the community to have a district that is almost 70% Latino, being corralled into an intellectual starvation by not being able to put the books -- the book, occupy America is a great book. Let's remember --

José Cárdenas: we're almost out of time. I think there's obviously a lot more to discuss and we'll try and have you both back on to discuss it. Thank you so much for joining us tonight on "Horizonte" to discuss this very important issue.

Mark Stegeman:President, Tucson Unified School District Governing Board; Raul Aguirre:Chairman, Mexican American Studies Community Advisory Board;

Illustration of columns of a capitol building with text reading: Arizona PBS AZ Votes 2024

Arizona PBS presents candidate debates

The four men of Il Divo
airs June 2

Il Divo XX: Live from Taipei

Rachel Khong
May 29

Join us for PBS Books Readers Club!

Super Why characters

Join a Super Why Reading Camp to play, learn and grow

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters

STAY in touch
with azpbs.org!

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters: