Ethnic Studies Law

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Former Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal on his last day of office found the Tucson Unified School District in violation of the ethnic studies law. Associated Press reporter Bob Christie talks about the latest on this issue.

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José Cárdenas: Good evening, I'm José Cárdenas. The former superintendent of public instruction John Huppenthal again finds the Tucson Unified School District in violation of the Ethnic Studies Law.

José Cárdenas: Plus, find out how almonds and vinegar benefit diabetic health.

José Cárdenas: And a valley author receives an award for distinction in Chicano/Latino literature. All this coming up next on "Horizonte."

Video: Funding for "Horizonte" is made possible by contributions by the friends of eight, members of your Arizona PBS station.

José Cárdenas: Thank you for joining us. Last week, former superintendent of public instruction John Huppenthal on his last day in office found the Tucson Unified School District in violation of a state law targeting ethnic studies. The district has until March 4th to come into compliance or the department of education will withhold 10% of its monthly state aid. This week, Tucson unified school district superintendent H.T. Sanchez said the ethnic studies curriculum will continue. Here to talk about the latest is Bob Christie, Arizona Statehouse reporter for The Associated Press. Bob, thanks for joining us on "Horizonte." As Yogi berra would say, it's deja vu all over again. What's going on?

John Huppenthal: Tom horne did. He was the big promoter of the 2010 ethnic studies law that targeted the ethnic studies program at the Tucson unified school district and on his last day in office, he issued a very similar letter to what John Huppenthal did, finding that the district was in violation of this law which bans any class which promotes the overthrow of the U.S. government, promotes resentment towards a race or a class of people or that advocates ethnic solidarity over the treatment of everyone as an individual.

José Cárdenas: And there was a fourth category but that's one that the federal district court said was unconstitutionally vague?

John Huppenthal: That's gone now. Or at least --

José Cárdenas: That was the one about tailoring a program for a particular ethnic group.

John Huppenthal: And so that's gone because it's too vague. But these three parts of the law are in full force. And the Tucson unified school district in 2012 after they lost at an administrative law judge dismantled the ethnic studies program but they revamped it to deal with a desegregation order -- the Tucson school district has been under a desegregation order for more than 30 years ago. Three years ago, they came up with a plan that a federal judge agreed if you do these things, which is teach some ethnically diverse classes, you'll be out from under this order. So the school district came up with several courses, U.S. history tailored towards Mexican-Americans, U.S. history tailored towards African-Americans, and an English class. And that is what superintendent Huppenthal now is taking issue with.

José Cárdenas: Now are these classes new? You said the agreement with the federal court was about three years ago, but did they just now get around to implementing these classes?

John Huppenthal: They just started them within the last couple of years. They're new classes that were not part of the ethnic studies program, which is gone but they're falling under this law because according to the superintendent of public instruction, they do these three things, which is promote overthrow of the U.S. government, they promote resentment towards another race and they promote ethnic solidarity.

José Cárdenas: So can you give us a rough sense of the specifics? What are the courses? What are the items that the superintendent cited as the basis for making those conclusions?

John Huppenthal: He cited an American history from an African-American perspective that used hip-hop lyrics, it was a hip-hop class talking about how hip-hop culture and the language that's used is a way for that community to express its concerns about the government.

José Cárdenas: And the concern there is that that promotes resentment?

John Huppenthal: It promotes resentment, overthrow of the government, those are the two issues there. Shar things with the Mexican-American history program. There were specifics in the letter about curriculum that specifically adopted words that were divisive, that they found were illegal.

José Cárdenas: And as I recall, in glancing at the superintendent's notice, there was like an assignment that said identify what three lies in the declaration of independence, some inconsistencies.

John Huppenthal: And why American slavery was the worst slavery in human history. These things were considered to be divisive and illegal under this 2010 law.

José Cárdenas: Now, let's take the declaration of independence one. I think most Americans consider it in some sense a sacred document but I think most people also recognize the inconsistency between saying all men are created equal and having a country that at the time permitted slavery. Why is that a violation of the law?

John Huppenthal: Well, I'm not the lawyer. So they're pressing that point. I would think that the legislature and superintendent Huppenthal and previous superintendent and A.G. tom Moore felt that teaching those types of -- pointing those things out to students was inconsistent with the promotion of an unified school system. They really thought that that was divisive and it should be illegal.

José Cárdenas: The statute itself as I recall has a provision that says this does not prohibit the teaching of controversial subjects.

John Huppenthal: That's going to be litigated. My position isn't to say whether it is or not. The Tucson school district says it's not. They believe that what they're doing is fairly close to in compliance with the law. They're serving two masters here. They're serving the state law which prohibits teaching what the legislature calls divisive topics and a judge's order that requires them to teach ethnically specific courses for minority students and they intend to expand this program. They think that the federal judge's order is going to trump the state law and they intend to not only fight it but to expand the program. It's in three high schools now, and it's going to be in seven next year.

José Cárdenas: Now, we do have the superintendent making the points you just made, which is we've got a federal court order we have to comply with. But also reaching out to the new superintendent and seeing what he can do there.

John Huppenthal: Right. He's going to meet -- he plans to meet this week with the new superintendent, Diane Douglas, to discuss these issues. We hope to get some type of update from what comes out of those talks this week as well but we really don't know and whether Diane Douglas takes up John Huppenthal's order, whether she puts it on hold, we don't know. What we do know is the order as it is now, this letter that was issued on Friday will take $14 million a year away from the Tucson unified school district as of March 4th. So if they don't comply, if they don't stop these courses and if they don't get a legal remedy, they'll lose 10% of their funding, which is huge.

José Cárdenas: One last question. As everybody knows, Diane Douglas didn't say much about most of her positions, and didn't comment on this. Any sense from anything you've seen as to how she might come out on this?

John Huppenthal: Superintendent Sanchez down in Tucson, his letter to her in a statement that came out Friday night after he got superintendent Huppenthal's letter said I sure hope that what Diane Douglas said about letting local schools control their own destinies is true in this case. As you know, one of her big issues during the campaign was that schools need to be controlled locally, that especially the common core curriculum was imposed from on high, from the federal government, and the state government down to the local schools, and so he's arguing and I'm sure he hopes to convince Diane Douglas that this is a local issue, this is a local control issue.

José Cárdenas: So this will be an interesting test of that philosophy.

John Huppenthal: It will be.

José Cárdenas: Thanks for joining us on "Horizonte" to talk about this.

John Huppenthal: My pleasure.

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Bob Christie:Journalist, Associated Press;

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