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Arizona to withhold funding for Mexican American studies program

January 6, 2012 |  3:20 pm

Tucson ethnic studies

Tucson's Mexican American studies program remains in violation of state law, Arizona's public schools chief ruled Friday, ordering that millions in state funding be withheld from the school district until the program is dismantled or brought into compliance.

John Huppenthal, the state superintendent of public instruction, deemed the Tucson Unified School District program in violation of a new state law prohibiting ethnic studies classes deemed to be divisive.

Among other things, the law bans classes primarily designed for a particular ethnic group or which  “promote resentment toward a race or class of people.”

Defenders of the program say it does no such thing. They say the classes push Latino students to excel and teach a long-neglected slice of America's cultural heritage: Chicano perspectives on literature, history and social justice.

Huppenthal ordered that beginning in February, 10% of the district’s monthly apportionment of state aid be withheld until the program comes into compliance.

It is the second instance in which Huppenthal ruled that the program violated the law. The first decision, in June, was appealed by the school district. Last week, an Arizona administrative law judge rejected that appeal, affirming Huppenthal’s original decision.

The withholding of state funds will also be applied retroactively between August 2011 and January 2012. Those funds — about $5 million — will be taken out of the district’s February allotment, said Ryan Ducharme, an Arizona Department of Education spokesman.

Should the district not bring the program into compliance, the district stands to lose about $14.4 million over the fiscal year, Ducharme said.

The district’s governing board can also appeal the decision in Superior Court. The board will discuss the matter during its next meeting on Tuesday, a district spokeswoman said.

“For the educational well-being of all TUSD students and to ensure its schools receive the adequate resources they need to deliver a quality education, I strongly urge the TUSD governing board to take decisive and immediate action to come into compliance,” Huppenthal said in a statement.

Miguel Cuevas, a member of the governing board, said that Huppenthal’s decision to withhold funds retroactively took the board members by surprise. They will now review the decision and determine if Huppenthal is within his legal rights to withhold funding during a time that the district was appealing his first decision.

Cuevas told the Los Angeles Times that because the district would not be able to weather the loss of more than $14 million in state funding, the board would have to consider several options and decide which is best for the district at large, including the elimination of the program. “I cannot go down the path of losing $15 million,” he said. “That is something I cannot see happen.”

The law does not outlaw all ethnic studies courses in Arizona, but was framed in a way to target the Tucson program. The program's opponents — led by Huppenthal, a veteran state senator elected superintendent of public instruction in 2010 — say that by framing historical events in racial terms, the teachers promote groupthink and victimhood.

The classes, Huppenthal said in the statement, assert that “Latino minorities have been and continue to be oppressed by a Caucasian majority.”

Huppenthal provided no specific methods the school district could follow to come into compliance, but he did offer that he hoped and expected the district to develop “a transparent, public process to ensure that all curriculum and course materials align with state education standards and applicable laws and are thoroughly vetted by educators, curriculum experts and the local community.”

A separate case pending in federal court contends that the state law is unconstitutional. Eleven teachers and two students have requested an injunction to halt its implementation. A federal judge in Tucson heard arguments on the injunction last month but will soon rule on Huppenthal's motion to dismiss the case.

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--Stephen Ceasar

Photo: Pima Community College student Fernando Valenzuela, right, protests with fellow students and faculty in front of his high school against a law that would ban Mexican American studies and other ethnic study programs at Tucson Unified School District schools. Credit: James S. Wood.

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