A federal judge in Arizona on Tuesday refused to halt a state law that essentially bans a Tucson Mexican American studies program, but ruled that a lawsuit challenging the measure could proceed.
Eleven Tucson Unified School District teachers and two students had sued in federal court, requesting an injunction to keep the law from taking effect while their lawsuit continued. Among other things, the measure bans classes primarily designed for a particular ethnic group or promoting “resentment toward a race or class of people.”
U.S. Circuit Court Judge A. Wallace Tashima in Tucson refused to grant the injunction but ruled that the students could challenge the law on 1st Amendment grounds. The teachers do not have standing, he ruled.
Arizona’s state superintendent of public instruction, John Huppenthal, had asked Tashima to dismiss the lawsuit.
Huppenthal ruled last week that the program violated the law and ordered that 10% of the district's monthly share of state aid be withheld until the program came into compliance. Deductions would begin in February and would include penalties retroactive to the beginning of the school year. That would amount to about $5 million in February, according to the Arizona Department of Education, and $14.4 million over the fiscal year.
Huppenthal did not say the district should eliminate the program, but did not offer any suggestions on how it could comply with state law.
“We would find it nearly impossible for them to cure the program,” he told The Times last week. “The problems are so widespread and so deep that it would be very difficult. These are decisions they would have to make.”
The district's governing board can appeal Huppenthal’s decision in Superior Court. The board was expected to discuss the matter at its Tuesday meeting.
Before Huppenthal ruled the program in violation, teachers had argued in federal court that enforcing the law would likely force the district to dissolve the program, costing them their jobs.
In his decision, Tashima wrote that terminating the ethnic studies program would not necessarily result in the teachers’ termination, and that the program could survive by complying with Huppenthal’s ruling.
Teachers also argued that the law infringed on their 1st Amendment rights. Tashima rejected that argument, ruling that speech made while teaching falls within a teacher’s “official duties” and thus has no constitutional protection.
But the two students do have legal standing to challenge the law, he ruled, because they are Latinos who intend to take the classes in the future and could not do so if the classes were eliminated.
-- Stephen Ceasar
Photo: Faculty and students, including Fernando Valenzuela, right, take part in a May protest against a law that would ban Mexican American studies and other ethnic study programs at Tucson Unified School District schools. Credit: James S. Woods