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Court ruling vindicates Tucson Unified's Mexican American Studies — so what now?

Court ruling vindicates Tucson Unified's Mexican American Studies — so what now?

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On April 26, 2011, protesters filled the TUSD Governing Board room, chaining themselves to chairs and the dais in protest of HB 2281, the Mexican American Studies ban.

The Mexican American Studies program at Tucson Unified School District scored a knockout victory this week when a federal district court judge declared the law banning the courses to be motivated by, and enacted with, racial animus.

But almost six years after the program officially came to an end, that victory rang somewhat hollow to supporters of Mexican American Studies, who say despite the ruling, the program will probably never be exactly what it was before the state began its crackdown.

U.S. District Judge A. Wallace Tashima declared the law violated students’ First and 14th amendment rights on Tuesday, Aug. 22, but the court is still awaiting a final round of legal briefings from both sides before settling on a remedy.

The plaintiffs in the case, two fathers of school-age children, are seeking an injunction against the Department of Education from enforcing the unconstitutional law, according to their attorney, Richard Martinez.

But the decision to revive the program would fall to the five-member TUSD Governing Board, which doesn’t appear likely to resuscitate Mexican American Studies. That’s in part because the district has spent the past few years developing “culturally relevant courses” to replace ethnic studies programming.

Mexican American Studies began in 1998 as one of the many conditions required to prove the district was working to improve the academic achievement of minority students and to settle the district’s decades-old desegregation order. In 2010, the state Legislature and then-Gov. Jan Brewer approved a law targeting the MAS program, forcing TUSD’s Governing Board to eliminate the program in 2012 rather than face a 10 percent cut in state funding.

To keep in good standing with the district’s desegregation order, the district in 2013 approved new “culturally relevant curriculum” to help minority students succeed and bridge the achievement gap.


Teachers who worked in the Mexican American Studies program, and have since transferred to the district’s new Department of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy and Instruction, say the two programs are the same, but different.

Maria Federico-Brummer, a former Mexican American Studies teacher who is now director of Mexican American Student Services knows detractors say the culturally relevant classes are a watered-down version of MAS.

But she noted that all the books MAS used have been incorporated into the curriculum and most of the teachers from the former MAS program are working in the Culturally Relevant Department.

“The strongest elements of what we had are still intact,” she said.

Still, something was lost when the TUSD Governing Board did away with MAS and replaced it with culturally relevant courses.

One of the big changes, Federico-Brummer says, is that the team who ran MAS was a very strong group of educators who were like-minded, committed, and were excited about being on the cutting edge of ethnic studies work.

“Whereas with the culturally relevant classes, teachers are assigned,” she said.

“There’s no intrinsic drive, that’s the major difference,” she said, noting that the CRC teachers are good teachers doing good work, but they’re not necessarily trained in culturally relevant studies like the MAS teachers were.


All five members of the TUSD Governing Board said they were still grappling with what the federal district court ruling means for the board, the district’s desegregation order, and the Culturally Relevant Department – and that they’re awaiting more information from staff and attorneys.

Two board members, Michael Hicks and Mark Stegeman, were steadfast opponents of the Mexican American Studies program, and both said they wouldn’t want to bring back the MAS classes as they were before the ban.

Two other members of the board, Adelita Grijalva and Kristel Foster, are steadfast supporters of the MAS program. But both said simply restarting the MAS program probably isn’t an option since there’s another program in its place.

It would make more sense, Grijalva said, to try to incorporate anything that was lost from the MAS program back into the culturally relevant courses.

“It’s not something where we can just snap our fingers,” she said. “And I’ve heard from some teachers who are teaching the courses that they’d like to keep the courses.”

And Foster said that wouldn’t be fair to the Culturally Relevant Department, which has made big strides over the past few years.

“What I hope we do is give the freedom to that department, take that fear of that law away, and that those teachers are empowered to move forward and continue to do what they’re doing,” she said.

The remaining board member, Rachael Sedgwick, said she’s glad the “clearly racist” law was found unconstitutional. But she feels the MAS program had some serious problems, and she doesn’t want TUSD to return to the days where it was constantly under a microscope for its controversial courses.

Sedgwick said she recognizes the value of MAS or courses like it. But eventually, she would like the district to move away from specific “culturally relevant courses” and incorporate culturally relevant material into all classes.

Complicating the issue is that the board will have to take into account the wishes of the plaintiffs in the desegregation order.

Sylvia Campoy, a representative for the Latino plaintiffs in the desegregation case, said in an email that they are hopeful the court order will serve as vindication for the MAS program, its teachers, administrator and supporters.

“I am as hopeful that the court order will infuse total support from the TUSD administration and Board for the Mexican American Culturally Relevant Pedagogy Department and its critical work in serving TUSD students,” she wrote in the email.

And the case still isn’t over. The state could appeal.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas, the defendant in the case, hasn’t spoken to the Attorney General’s Office about her options yet, according to her spokesman, Stefan Swiat.

But Douglas’ predecessor, John Huppenthal, the original defendant in the lawsuit, said he doesn’t expect her to appeal.

“In this climate, there’s not going to be an appeal that succeeds. And I don’t think an appeal necessarily would be the best thing,” Huppenthal said.

Also telling is that in Huppenthal’s final day in office, he issued a finding that declared TUSD’s culturally relevant courses illegal. Then, as one of her first acts of business after taking over the office, Douglas conducted an intensive 60-day audit of the program, and did an about-face from her predecessor, declaring them legal.

Contact reporter Hank Stephenson at or 573-4279. On Twitter: @hankdeanlight

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