The Tucson Unified School District has lived under a federal desegregation court order for nearly 40 years.

The current chapter, which has the district working to end the court’s oversight, underlines the crux of the matter — how to weigh the goal of desegregating schools against improving educational opportunities and achievement for Latino, black and Native American kids.

The remedy has proved elusive. Millions of dollars have been spent on programs, teachers, aides and more. Standardized test scores continue to show gaps between white children and minority children. Much of the disparity runs along socioeconomic lines — no surprise to educators.

The goal, as delineated in a settlement agreement between the district and plaintiffs representing black and Latino students, has remained constant — improve educational opportunities for minority kids so they are equal to those available to white children.

The question today is how to do this in a school district that has gone from majority-white to majority-minority students. In the 1970s, when the court case began, TUSD’s enrollment was about 70 percent white. Now, it is 60 to 70 percent Latino.

TUSD’s plan for its magnet schools is a prime example. Schools have created programs to entice students interested in specific subjects — fine arts, media, science, culinary arts — hoping students would leave their neighborhood school and travel across town to a magnet school.

In short, it didn’t work – at least not as measured by a formula that declares a school’s enrollment can be no more than 70 percent of students belonging to one ethnic group if it is to be considered desegregated.

And this is why the magnet programs at Davis and Carrillo elementary schools and Pueblo Magnet High School are in question. The TUSD Governing Board decided in late October to not follow the plan laid out by the special master, who is an expert approved by the federal court to work with the district on its desegregation plan as it seeks to end the court oversight.

Special Master Bill Hawley responded in a Nov. 2 letter that the district’s magnet-school plan is vague and sometimes contradictory and leaves in place a system that hasn’t worked. Without specific benchmarks of what constitutes a magnet program’s success, he wrote, “politics will determine the outcomes, micro-politics at that.”

Hawley is correct. Any plan without measurable goals is doomed to mediocrity and “micro-politics” are entrenched in TUSD. He sent a Nov. 13 letter asking Superintendent H.T. Sanchez, who took the top post last summer, for assurance the district wouldn’t limit itself to the October magnet school plan as the parties worked out the Unitary Status Plan, or USP, which the federal court will consider.

Sanchez responded with a letter on Monday. In his refusal to entirely back off the October plan, which was created with parent and community input, Sanchez raises the vexing question that permeates the entire undertaking — how to meet the desegregation goals and improve academic achievement for minority kids while not allowing one to undercut the other.

“Pulling successful programs from those children and families may meet the letter of the USP but certainly is not consistent with the spirit of what this case was filed to achieve,” Sanchez wrote.

In an interview Monday Sanchez went further: “The tragedy in all of this, is when I took a look at the district and asked, have we done everything we can do to support the magnet programs, as a new superintendent I felt we could do more.

“To judge the efforts of today by the efforts of the past makes no sense,” Sanchez said. “I wrote (Hawley) in the letter that I’m going to go with the parents of the kids we have today. And if you want to take us to court, then that’s what will happen.”

Sanchez said the effort several years ago to decentralize central administration and leave many decisions up to individual schools hurt the magnet program. Standards and practices varied from campus to campus — some principals excelled with the flexibility, others did not.

Sanchez’s focus on students today makes sense, but it requires a studied and thoughtful examination to succeed.

We can say, for example, that the media and journalism program at Pueblo Magnet High School is excellent because we’ve interacted with its students and teachers. Cutting this program would deny a powerful teaching tool to students who live in largely Latino neighborhoods. Moving it across town to a different school and hoping to draw those same students into a majority-white school, for example, would lack basic common sense.

“It’s busing,” Sanchez said. “What they’re saying is that in 2013 we want to put Hispanic kids on a bus. Make them wake up earlier than others to get across town. If they have an after-school event, their parents may not have transportation. In 2013 that doesn’t make sense. What makes sense is to have outstanding programs everywhere.”

Yet it’s not accurate or responsible to act as if the magnet schools, or any school, are automatically doing right by their students because their programs are popular or long-standing. Hawley is correct in his urgency to try new ideas, and reading his letter we sense his frustration with TUSD’s inclination to stick with the status quo.

Hawley and Sanchez are both in the unenviable position of having to navigate among plaintiffs from the original federal lawsuit, the court, students, parents, alumni, board members and community residents. All come to the table with their own priorities and preferences.

Unless TUSD is willing to change, and Hawley and ultimately the federal judge are willing to identify and preserve what works, money will continue to be spent in the pursuit of a goal that may not serve the best interests of students of any color.