Tim Steller: TUSD faces uphill climb on deseg ruling

Court order puts district on collision course with state law
2013-02-08T00:00:00Z 2013-02-08T11:20:13Z Tim Steller: TUSD faces uphill climb on deseg rulingTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
February 08, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Now the tough, politically polarizing work resumes for TUSD.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge David Bury ordered the Tucson Unified School District to put in place what should be its final desegregation plan. If the district complies, it will emerge from the federal order in 2017, 39 years after it was imposed.

Although TUSD agreed in advance to the vast majority of the plan, following it will be difficult -and likely embroil the board in more controversies as well as litigation.

As part of the plan, Bury ordered the district to resume teaching "culturally relevant courses," which amounts to an order to challenge the new state law governing ethnic studies.

Like it or not, state law prohibits any courses "designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group." While Mexican-American Studies and African-American Studies courses are open to everybody, the point of them is to improve the academic performances of students from those backgrounds, as Bury acknowledges.

So, the order sets the district on another collision course with Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal and Attorney General Tom Horne.

But that's not all the tough work the district now faces. Under the order, the district also must:

• Cap the number of neighborhood kids in highly popular magnet schools at 50 percent of enrollment, meaning some may not get to go to their neighborhood schools.

• Bring more Latino and African-American students into advanced courses and University High School, using alternative admission criteria if needed, while maintaining the programs' quality.

• Reduce ethnic and racial disparities in discipline while remaining fair to all.

• Decide how many new administrative positions to create to fill the approximately 20 new roles the plan prescribes.

The 60-page plan spearheaded by Special Master Willis Hawley details ways to pursue these aims, so the district need not cut its own paths. But that won't make it easy, especially balancing the federal order on culturally relevant courses against the state law meant to limit ethnic studies.

"If it's not an inherent contradiction, it's certainly going to be a narrow path to navigate," board member Mark Stegeman told me Thursday.

I asked Horne about the order, and he sounded eager to fight TUSD again, if Huppenthal gives him the say-so.

"If it were up to me, we would act. I can't act without the superintendent of schools," Horne said.

I asked former Arizona Supreme Court Justice Stanley Feldman who would win in a clash between Horne's likely argument that culturally relevant courses violate the state law and Bury's order of them.

"The federal order takes precedence," Feldman said, adding some strong criticism of the state law.

"The fault is not in the federal judge who is trying to conform, in so far as possible, his order to state law," he said. "The fault is in this piece of legislation, which is impossible to follow in any rational sense."

A federal court challenge of the state law is pending.

But even if the district is able to thread that needle without further litigation, the other issues will be similarly dicey. For example, the plan orders the district to "reduce racial and ethnic disparities in the administration of school discipline" and sets out a new disciplinary process emphasizing "restorative practices."

Yet the disciplinary data in the plan show a complicated breakdown in TUSD last year.

Hispanic students in elementary school and high school had a disproportionately low rate of suspensions. Latino students received 50 percent of the suspensions in elementary schools and 56 percent of the suspensions in high schools while making up 61 percent of the district's enrollment.

Does that mean the district must work to suspend proportionally more Latinos?

I worry these issues will bog down the district for months and years to come. But I'd like to be hopeful, so I'll harken back to a conversation I had with Sylvia Campoy, a long-time supporter of desegregation efforts, several weeks ago.

"I think they're going to get it right," she said of TUSD, "because I don't think they have a choice."

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

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