A candidate forum for Arizona's superintendent of public instruction was interrupted Thursday evening by a group of protesters who support TUSD's ethnic studies program.

Democratic candidates Jason Williams and Penny Kotterman and Republican opponents John Huppenthal and Margaret Dugan were in Tucson answering questions on various educational matters, including school funding, special education, charter schools and early childhood and adult education. About 200 people attended.

Republican candidate Beth Price did not attend.

About 20 minutes before the two-hour forum concluded, a group of protesters made their way into an already packed theater at Rincon/University High School, 421 N. Arcadia Ave.

At the time, Dugan was responding to an audience member's question on tuition tax credits but was interrupted by someone yelling "freedom of speech" and urging the candidates to keep their hands off of the ethnic studies program.

Audience members told the group to let the candidates finish and tried to keep the protesters out before eventually letting them enter.

The protesters held banners that read "Defend ethnic studies. No to HB 2281" and "$ for education not border militarization" as the candidates promptly gave their closing statements. No one in the group claimed affiliation to a particular organization.

One member of the group, 21-year-old Armando Sotelo said he felt the protest was the only way of getting a message across to the candidates.

"We don't have newspaper ads or commercials to get out our message," said Sotelo, who graduated from Tucson High Magnet School and participated in the ethnic studies program. "We are concerned citizens."

Earlier in the evening, Dugan and Huppenthal were criticized by a few members of the audience for supporting the ethnic studies bill. The measure prohibits courses that promote the overthrow of the U.S. government or resentment toward a race or class of people. The bill also bans courses designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group or courses that advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.

Current Arizona schools chief Tom Horne believes TUSD is in violation of the bill and has vowed to withhold funding from Tucson's largest school district as a result.

Dugan, who currently serves as Horne's deputy superintendent, has said she will pursue the matter if elected.

The district denies the allegation and says it is in full compliance with the law.

Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at 573-4175 or ahuicochea@azstarnet.com