The only way for the Tucson Unified School District to do right by its students is to improve every school. For nearly four decades, the district has operated under a federal desegregation court order, and that era is, at long last, winding down.
U.S. District Judge David Bury earlier this month issued an order that adopts the "Unitary Status Plan" for TUSD, a lengthy document that outlines in detail what the district must do to convince the court it has met its obligations under the original desegregation settlement agreement.
The plan was hammered out among the plaintiffs representing black and Latino students, the U.S. Justice Department, the district and an outside "special master" appointed by the court to guide the plan.
Filled with dates, percentages and benchmarks to evaluate progress, the plan lays out a path for the district to travel, but it will not be a smooth road.
It's hard to feel sympathy for TUSD leadership - for decades students have been underserved. They've benefited from programs here and there over the years as academic approaches changed, were revamped and changed again, but much of the oxygen that should have gone into creating better schools for every student was consumed by political battles.
But the fact remains that educational opportunities and achievement are not uniform across TUSD schools. The district is now majority-minority, and more than 60 percent of the students are Latino. In the mid-'70s, when the original desegregation order was issued, the student population was more than 60 percent white.
TUSD has lost thousands of students in recent years, but other districts have seen enrollment drops, too. Charter schools have flourished in Arizona, and parents have many more choices of where to send their children than they did even a decade ago. The landscape has changed.
When we examine the Unitary Status Plan, and Bury's Feb. 6 order adopting it with a few changes, it is hard to shake the notion that the district of 1974 and the district of 2013 are two different places.
What hasn't changed, however, is that Latino, black and Native American students fare worse on standardized tests, show up in higher numbers in school disciplinary actions and take fewer honors classes than their Anglo classmates.
There are bright spots within the unitary plan. The call for "culturally relevant" courses that explain and explore the experience of African-Americans and Latinos in the American story is guaranteed to provoke public response. These courses will be open to all students, as they should be, as this is information that every student, no matter his or her race or ethnicity, needs to understand.
The elephant in the room, of course, is whether the state officials will decide to interfere with the district's creation and teaching of these classes. This outside pressure, demonstrated by the passage of a law directed at TUSD's previous Mexican American Studies program, strong-armed the district into ending those courses.
The court order does not reconstitute the previous courses, as Bury's order states plainly. We encourage everyone involved to give TUSD the time and space necessary to develop quality courses that embrace the big picture of American history.
The district has much work to do, and it's to the benefit of the most important people in this equation - the students - to work constructively together.
Arizona Daily Star