A federal court ordered Tucson Unified School District to desegregate its schools more than 40 years ago, but only in the past year has the district changed its attitude and shown a willingness to comply, according to the federal judge overseeing the case.
U.S. District Judge David Bury said TUSD has made impressive gains in the past year and deserves to be declared in partial compliance with the court order, moving the district a significant step closer to ending its longstanding desegregation case.
But representative and lawyers for the plaintiffs argue that while the writing on the wall is clear — after 40 years, everyone wants to end court supervision in the case — the court and its special master may be rushing to judgment and could end up letting go of the case without making any significant improvement in the lives of black and Latino students.
On Wednesday, Bury issued a ruling declaring the district partially compliant in most subcategories of its longstanding court orders and outlined steps to get the district fully out from under court supervision by as early as next year.
Rubin Salter, attorney for the African-American plaintiffs, said he was unsurprised by the judge’s ruling and agrees that the case needs to conclude.
But he noted that after 40 years and billions of dollars spent to improve the education of minority students, black students in many respects are no better off than they were before the case started.
“The district over 30 years (of receiving desegregation funding), spent almost $2 billion, and black kids started out at the bottom — from an achievement and discipline standpoint — and they’re still there. That spoke volumes to us. That shows something else needs to be done,” he said.
And Sylvia Campoy, a representative for the Latino plaintiffs, called a one-year completion goal “overly ambitious.”
“It’s taken them 40 years to get to where they are today, it’s overly ambitious to say that the remaining areas of noncompliance will be resolved in one year’s time,” she said.
“That’s the disappointing thing about this partial unitary status ruling. … The judge says, this is the only year I’ve really seen a flurry of activity, and he applauds. But what happened the other 39 years?” she said.
Campoy and Salter both said they had only limited time to skim the 152-page court ruling and would have a more thorough analysis after having time to digest the document. But both said they weren’t surprised — it closely follows recommendations made by the court-appointed “special master” charged with overseeing TUSD’s progress in the case, back in March.
TUSD Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo did not return calls for comment. But two TUSD Governing Board members hailed the court’s decision as a major step forward.
Governing Board member Mark Stegeman said he was pleased that the ruling “explicitly recognizes the progress TUSD has made, especially over the last two years” and said the ruling is a “significant step toward full release” from court oversight.
Governing Board member Kristel Foster said the ruling shows the district has been following through on its desegregation plan, and she was happy the judge acknowledged “that TUSD has been a vanguard in culturally relevant courses to close the achievement gap, first with our former (Mexican American Studies) program and continuing with our (culturally relevant curriculum) department.”
Bury said that in many of the areas where the district did not attain compliance, there is minimal work remaining.
But for now, the court will retain oversight and enforcement authority over the district, even in the subcategories where the district is deemed in compliance, to ensure TUSD doesn’t backslide, Bury noted in the order.
That, at least, was welcome news for the plaintiffs, who argue that continued oversight will be crucial to ensure the district follows through on its plans.
Still, Bury found the district was still lacking in meeting requirements in many categories of its desegregation plan, which covers nine general areas, including student assignment, transportation, administrators and certified staff, quality of education, discipline, family and community engagement, extracurricular activities, facilities and technology, and accountability and transparency.
At the heart of the issue is racial segregation at schools.
While Bury argued that the district has made great strides toward decreasing the number of “racially concentrated” or segregated schools, it has faltered on ensuring its magnet schools aren’t racially concentrated.
Magnet schools, designed to attract diverse student bodies, are the “most effective and primary integration strategy” the court noted, but TUSD has shown “limited interest in strengthening magnet schools, much less expanding its magnet options.”
As a result, many of its magnet schools remain academically weak and the overall magnet program is stunted, Bury wrote.
For example, of the district’s 13 magnet schools, only five achieved letter grades of B from the state school grading system. None received an A, although per the desegregation plan, all are supposed to be A- or B-ranked schools.
“The district cannot move forward by ignoring the elephant in the room: An academically ‘failing’ magnet school or program,” Bury wrote.
The court demanded the district file a three-year comprehensive magnet plan to outline how TUSD will improve and grow its magnet program by the end of this school year.
Both Campoy and Salter said they were glad Bury didn’t let the district off the hook in that area and agreed TUSD has much more work to do before it should be considered compliant with the court order.
Besides ensuring schools aren’t racially concentrated, another major goal of the district’s desegregation plan is to ensure that minority students receive the same access to quality education and advanced learning experiences as their white counterparts, including access to honors classes, Advanced Placement classes and dual-enrollment college classes.
On that front, the court argued that there are still some stark disparities in access to advanced-learning classes.
The court recommended TUSD be declared partially compliant, warning that based on the information provided by the district, “It is impossible to determine which strategies planned by the district to increase access and success in (advanced-learning classes) are effective and which the district intends to maintain going forward.”
The court ordered the district to complete a lengthy list of goals, including drafting plans and policies, to address how it will expand and improve those advanced-learning classes before it can apply for full compliance status next year.
Salter said the judge laid down marching orders for the district, and if the district complies, there may be some improvement in the ability of minority students to access those advanced classes.
“They’ve got a long way to go in my opinion, but if (TUSD) follows what the special master and the judge said, maybe, maybe it will be the beginning for real progress in closing the achievement gap,” he said.
But in one key area, the court denied the district even partially compliant status.
From its inception, the case has challenged the district’s disciplinary policies and practices as having a disparate effect on minority students, especially African-American students, Bury wrote.
And still today, African-American students are twice as likely to be suspended as white students, Bury noted.
Bury argued that the court has received no evidence that disproportionate level of discipline is waning. In fact, some of the progress that had been achieved in recent years was reversed — a fact that was obscured after TUSD changed the definitions of disciplinary actions, he noted.
Salter agreed, saying the disciplinary disparities are starker than the district admits.
“I think they played with the numbers a little bit. You’ll note the district wasn’t counting in-house suspensions, and of course a suspension is a suspension,” he said.
Bury offered a detailed plan for better training of staff, and the better reporting of incidents, and warned that the district shall make completing the discipline plan a “top priority.”