State Superintendent John Huppenthal has decided that TUSD's Mexican American Studies program violates state law - but to get to his flimsy conclusion he had to ignore the clear findings of the outside auditors he hired to investigate the program in the first place.

The disconnect helps explain his awkward dance at the press conference Wednesday in Phoenix, where he tried to keep the focus on what he described as a large-scale and longstanding failure of the Tucson Unified School District Governing Board and administration to properly supervise the MAS program.

He would be asked, repeatedly, about the specific provisions of the law he determined TUSD is violating - the one commonly known as HB 2281 - and he would turn the conversation back to the curriculum development process.

It didn't make sense.

When you read the full audit, the problem is obvious. Huppenthal was proclaiming TUSD to have violated a state law, A.R.S. 15-112, while simultaneously releasing an independent audit that explicitly states that TUSD has not violated A.R.S. 15-112.

The law prohibits courses that promote overthrowing the U.S. government; promote resentment toward a race or class of people; are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group; or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of students as individuals.

Instead of getting into the details of what he said are violations of three provisions (he did not find evidence that courses are encouraging kids to overthrow the U.S. government), Huppenthal kept circling back to the overall curriculum process and problems, which the audit does mention, in the district-level structure and oversight of the MAS materials.

But the law that Huppenthal announced TUSD is violating (which will cost the district 10 percent in state money if it doesn't come into compliance to his satisfaction within 60 days) says nothing - not one word - about curriculum, lesson plans, community input or Governing Board oversight.

Huppenthal said state Department of Education investigators found that the TUSD Governing Board has not, over the years, done its job in regard to approving curriculum and materials used in MAS - as it is supposed to do.

On this point, we do agree with the audit and Huppenthal. One reason the relationship has so eroded between the TUSD administration, some Governing Board members and the program's faculty and supporters is that MAS has been allowed to operate with too much autonomy.

The program director wouldn't cooperate with auditors -a refusal the district should not have allowed.

The Governing Board needs to assert itself and MAS needs to remember that it does operate within a larger educational system.

Huppenthal cannot ignore the audit. He tries to distance himself from it by stating that the "audit was a limited part of the overall investigation that the department had conducted." He said TUSD knew when auditors were coming for class visits and about a third of MAS classes were observed, and for about 30 minutes each.

These are limitations, it's true, but it's also, we'd wager, far more direct interaction with state-level observers than most classrooms receive in a year.

The auditors are specific in their recommendations - they explain what was observed in classrooms, what they were told in interviews and what materials they reviewed, and it was this information that was used to analyze the program after Jan. 1, 2011. "Whereas, there may have been evidence or perceived evidence to impropriety in the past, there is currently none now," the report states on Page 66.

Huppenthal relies heavily on "reviewed materials" and examples without context in his findings. He also ignores, wholesale, any student-achievement results connected to the MAS courses -as he should, in a twisted way, because the ethnic-studies law has never been about the quality of students' education.

We found this comment, from an unnamed student interviewed by the auditors, compelling: "I've been on the AP advanced track my whole life. It's always been very black and white; this is what happens, you take a test, do an essay, get the grade. The reason the ethnic-studies classes are so special, I think it has a lot to do with the hands-on nature of the class. You're involved with your community; how is this issue relevant to me, my life, and where I live."

The audit provides a window into MAS, a program that has administrative concerns but works for kids.

Huppenthal, who revels in reports and information, should follow the data and support a program that shows results.

Arizona Daily Star