Tim Steller: Will ethnic classes' return be peaceful?

2013-03-15T00:00:00Z Tim Steller: Will ethnic classes' return be peaceful?Tim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 15, 2013 12:00 am  • 

We can hope now for a relatively peaceful return of ethnic studies to the Tucson Unified School District.

A March 8 court ruling upheld the state law limiting ethnic studies courses - but may ease that rebirth anyway.

U.S. Circuit Judge A. Wallace Tashima ruled that the law, intended primarily to stop Mexican American Studies courses in TUSD, is constitutional, with one key exception.

The law's ban on courses designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group is "overbroad" and unconstitutional, Tashima decided.

That may be all the district needs to avoid an otherwise certain legal clash with the state Department of Education and attorney general. Such a clash had seemed inevitable since Feb. 6, when, as part of a desegregation order, U.S. District Judge David Bury ordered the district to offer "culturally relevant courses" for Latinos and African-Americans - essentially, ethnic studies - next year.

That left the district in the position of needing to teach ethnic studies again, but doing it within the bounds of the 2010 state law that forced it to drop the courses last year.

That law prohibits courses that:

• Promote the overthrow of the United States government.

• Promote resentment toward a race or class of people.

• Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.

• Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.

If a school or district offers classes with any of these characteristics, the state could withhold up to 10 percent of its funding.

Now, with Tashima's ruling, the law's third mandate is invalid, and Attorney General Tom Horne's office said he does not plan to appeal. So that part of the law will remain dead.

Back in January, TUSD Superintendent John Pedicone told me the district could design new ethnic studies courses that adhere to the state law with one exception - the ban on courses designed largely for students of one ethnicity.

"That was going to be the one that was going to create problems with us," Pedicone said Thursday. "The last thing we wanted the court to place us in the middle of was a fight between the federal court and the state law."

In the end, the federal court order would likely have trumped state law, but considerable money would have been spent on lawyers before we got there.

Now, the district must quickly finish designing the new curriculum for culturally relevant courses, then give the public 60 days to review it and related course materials, such as books.

Some conflict is likely to come out of that process.

Horne, who raised the issue of Tucson's Mexican American Studies program when he was superintendent of public instruction, is now attorney general, and Tashima found that Horne had a "single-minded focus on terminating the MAS program ... suggestive of discriminatory intent." He'll be looking for possible violations, though such decisions belong to current Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal.

And the man leading the design of TUSD's new courses is Augustine Romero, who helped create the courses Horne originally opposed.

Also, supporters of the courses, formerly called Raza Studies, never agreed that the district should have shut down the program, as it did in January 2012 after Huppenthal found it was violating the state law. They're concerned the district will offer a version of ethnic studies so watered down that it has no value.

"We're going to have to work really closely with the state to ensure we don't have surprises," TUSD board President Adelita Grijalva told me. Indeed, the district is keeping the state Department of Education updated on its plans for the new courses, though Grijalva isn't convinced state officials won't find the district in violation anyway.

"We could cross every 't,' dot every 'i' and still be found out of compliance," she said. "My hope would be to show, if we're found out of compliance, to show that we've done our due diligence."

"We really just need to move forward."

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-8427. On Twitter @senyorreporter

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