Following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Tom Horne, Arizona schools chief John Huppenthal used his final moments in office to find TUSD’s culturally relevant courses illegal.
Huppenthal, whose term ended Friday, announced just hours before the close of business that the Tucson Unified School District has until March 4 to come into compliance or face losing 10 percent of its monthly portion of state aid — about $14 million annually.
While both Horne and Huppenthal have previously only expressed discontent over the district’s Mexican American Studies curriculum, Huppenthal said Friday his concerns have widened.
“After a thorough review of materials from TUSD’s culturally relevant courses, I find that the district has failed to meet several provisions of the 2012 settlement agreement and is once again in clear violation of (the law),” he said. “Furthermore, I am deeply concerned by the fact that the noncompliance appears to extend beyond the classes taught from the Mexican American perspective and now also includes classes taught from the African-American perspective.”
TUSD, meanwhile, plans to move forward with a commitment to offer more culturally relevant courses to students in the spring. District officials expressed astonishment over the finding, saying just two weeks ago Huppenthal’s deputy superintendent told the district there was nothing to indicate any violation.
“The last indication from second-highest level of the department was that based on all of our work and efforts and collaboration that we were in compliance,” TUSD Superintendent H.T. Sanchez said.
Sanchez could not say on Friday whether the district would appeal Huppenthal’s finding, saying he needs to consult with legal counsel. The district appealed the 2011 finding by Horne but was unsuccessful and resorted to eliminating Mexican American Studies courses to avoid the loss in funding.
In its place, the district created culturally relevant courses as required under a federal desegregation order and agreed to collaborate with the Arizona Department of Education to ensure the courses meet state standards and that they are not in violation of the law.
According to Huppenthal’s six-page notice of noncompliance, however, TUSD has failed to provide complete course-related information to the Arizona Department of Education, and some of the information submitted has been written in a fashion that would make it incomprehensible to teachers and parents. Even so, what has been provided, according to Huppenthal, indicates that several teachers appear to be teaching content that violates the law, specifically promoting the overthrow of the U.S. government, promoting resentment toward a race or class of people and advocating ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.
Examples referenced by Huppenthal include the use of Rage Against the Machine’s “Take the Power Back” in a Cholla Magnet High School U.S. history class taught from the Mexican American perspective.
Lyrics of the song include: “The rage is relentless; we need a movement with quickness; you are the witness of change; and to counteract; we gotta take the power back.”
Huppenthal also noted a handout titled “Why was American slavery the most brutal in history?” and an assignment asking students to write about three ideas in the Declaration of Independence that are “lies, hypocrisy, and break the social contract between new democracy these colonial leaders and the society they are representing.”
Huppenthal’s notice said the district can come into compliance by properly adopting courses and materials that meet state standards and do not violate state law, removing objectionable material from the curriculum, and showing the Department of Education that all teachers are teaching properly approved courses.
Though Sanchez said that while he can speak only to the last 1½ years that he has led TUSD, he feels the district has put forth its best effort, submitting documents, collaborating on professional development and having an open-door policy for visits.
In December, Sanchez requested a meeting with Huppenthal amid concerns over statements made by TUSD’s Augustine Romero, principal of Pueblo Magnet High School, that the now-defunct Mexican American Studies courses were back, prompting an Education Department request for TUSD to prove that was not the case.
Though that sit-down never occurred, Sanchez said he is hopeful the district will have a better relationship with incoming Superintendent Diane Douglas, who takes office Monday.
“I hope she’ll be more thoughtful than watching YouTube videos to make important decisions that affect the district,” Sanchez said. “She’s touted local control and decision-making when it comes to curriculum.”
And with Huppenthal on the way out, Sanchez feels Douglas is the only person who has any bearing on what TUSD needs to do to be in compliance.
“It doesn’t make any sense to try to understand Mr. Huppenthal’s logic at this point,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez also cited the state’s failed attempt to be named a party to the district’s desegregation court case in an effort to control the implementation of the federally mandated classes.
“This threatened enforcement proceeding is nothing more than an attempt to circumvent the federal court orders denying the state’s intervention,” Sanchez said.
Huppenthal argues that the ruling isn’t personal, but rather an effort to ensure that all TUSD students, regardless of their race or ethnic background, have access to a high-quality education.
“TUSD’s failure to respond completely to ADE’s request for information and materials raises many issues,” he wrote in the notice of noncompliance. “First it reveals a program in disarray, with insufficient support for teachers, inadequate teaching to students and little transparency for parents and community members.”