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Revival of Tucson ethnic studies program possible

TUCSON — Supporters of the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American Studies curriculum banned by a 2010 state law see potential for reviving the program or something similar in an update to a desegregation plan set for review by a federal court.

The plan stems from a 1978 settlement to a lawsuit alleging that the district discriminated against African-American and Mexican-American students. The draft update, filed Nov. 9 in U.S. District Court, is to a plan the district, plaintiffs, U.S. Justice Department and a court-appointed special master have offered to end court oversight and close the case.

It doesn’t cite Mexican American Studies classes directly but calls for the implementation of “socially and culturally relevant curriculum” focused on “the perspectives of African and Latino communities.”

“The way it’s written right now, it provides a great opportunity for the reinstatement of this department,” said Lorenzo Lopez, a history teacher at Cholla High School and a former Mexican American Studies teacher.

The Mexican American Studies program focused on the history and culture of Latinos in America with an emphasis on Mexican-American literature.

The program ended in January after the district unsuccessfully challenged the law, spearheaded by former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, now the state’s attorney general. Horne accused teachers of politicizing classrooms and said the program segregated students.

The law bars public schools from teaching classes that promote “the overthrow” of the government, encourage “ethnic solidarity” or “promote resentment” toward other ethnic groups.

The end of the program sparked protests in the district, in which 61 percent of students are Latino. A separate lawsuit, filed by 13 Mexican American Studies teachers and two students, is awaiting a decision in state court.

The desegregation plan centers on equalizing the racial makeup of the district’s schools, enhancing the diversity of administrators and improving educational opportunities for black and Hispanic students. The draft update filed Nov. 9 is called a unitary status plan.

A public comment period on the draft ends Wednesday, Nov. 28. The final version is to be submitted to a federal judge on Dec. 10.

A November news release from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) said an essential part of the plan is the “restoration” of a Latino-focused curriculum.

Nancy Ramirez, an attorney from MALDEF, said although the plan doesn’t refer to the program specifically, the language is a strategy to improve educational outcomes of black and Latino students and close achievement gaps.

“The language in the unitary status plan provides a framework and a mandate for the district to provide culturally relevant curriculum with a Latino focus,” Ramirez said.

Ramirez said that if the proposed plan wins federal court approval, the state law banning the Mexican American Studies program wouldn’t apply to it.

“The state can object, just like anybody else who’s a member of the public,” Ramirez said. “It’s not a party to this action.”

Neither Horne nor current Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal returned telephone messages seeking comment by Monday afternoon.

If the plan wins court approval, it’s unclear how the district would implement its requirements in light of state restrictions.

“It is a very contentious issue,” said Sam Brown, the district’s desegregation director.

Brown said there’s no question if the proposed plan is approved by a federal judge the “culturally relevant curriculum” would be implemented, but he said the important question is whether the program will be the same as before.

“Are you bringing back something that was here before or is it doing something different?” Brown said.

He said that will be decided by the district’s governing board.

Stephen Nuño, an associate professor at Northern Arizona University’s Department of Politics and International Affairs, said the language could create some kind of pathway to restore the program.

“It pretty much substantively looks similar to what we’ve had in the past,” Nuño said.

Nolan Cabrera, an assistant professor at University of Arizona’s Center for the Study of Higher Education, said the language in the plan leaves the door open for the classes but doesn’t mandate them.

Cabrera conducted a study that found students who took Mexican American Studies courses graduated high school and fared better on the AIMS test than those who didn’t.

“In my interpretation, the wording allows for the possibility but is not an explicit directive to restore that which has been eliminated,” Cabrera said.

Cronkite NewsWatch reporter Lesley Marin contributed to this article.

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