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Day After in Tucson: As School Board Padlocks Program, Mexican American Studies Will Rise Again in Courts and 2012 Election

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With their district already under an embarrassing desegregation order, the Governing Board of the Tucson Unified School District acquiesced to the demands of notorious Tea Party state officials last night and voted 4-1 to terminate the city's nationally acclaimed Ethnic Studies/Mexican American Studies program.

While Kansas school board members made national headlines in 1999 for their brief ban on the teaching of Darwinian evolution theory, Tucson school board member and Tea Party activist Michael Hicks propelled Tucson onto the forefront of national disgrace when he stumblingly read the motion to kill what educational experts have called "the nation's most innovative and successful academic and instructional program in Ethnic Studies at the secondary school level."

This is the scene on the day after in Tucson: Less than two months away from the 140th anniversary of the opening of the first public school in Tucson, founded by Mexican immigrant and legendary Tucson mayor Estevan Ochoa in 1872, the nationally celebrated Mexican American Studies teachers and their college-bound students will be removed from Mexican American history and literature courses and placed into unofficially approved "American" literature and history courses, including European History.

Not for long. History has a way of repeating itself.

Nearly half a century ago, in a similar move, segregationists in Tennessee attempted to shut down the Highlander Folk School for its pioneering work and curriculum to desegregate local schools. Despite shuttering and padlocking the doors to the school, and auctioning off its books and property, the state learned an enduring lesson: "A school is an idea," Highlander co-founder and educator Myles Horton declared. "And you can't padlock an idea."

Highlander eventually reopened and continues to flourish today. Few doubt Tucson's Mexican American Studies Program will rise again, as well.

"The good news is we have a vehicle to challenge immediately the constitutionality of HB 32281," said attorney Richard Martinez, who represents the Ethnic Studies/Mexican American Studies teachers and students.

While denying a motion for a preliminary injunction last night, U.S. Circuit Court Judge A. Wallace Tashima granted plaintiff and MAS student Korina Lopez standing in her claims on the constitutional violations of the state ban on the teaching of Ethnic Studies:

The students here have made a plausible showing of a First Amendment violation based on allegations in the Complaints that viewpoint-discriminatory criteria are being used to remove certain texts and materials from the MAS curriculum, which represent "willing speakers" to which the students would have otherwise been exposed.

"We are no closer to knowing what HB 2281 prohibits or allows," Martinez noted. "This is a fundamental flaw in the statute that should result in finding it invalid due to the impermissible vagueness of the law. After tonight's decision by the TUSD Governing Board, to eliminate MAS in TUSD, there will likely be a new effort made to reverse that action. We are far from a final decision, and the legal challenges will continue."

The challenges to the demoralized Tucson school board will go beyond the courts. Three members of the board who defied the overwhelming majority of local concerns, in a district with more than 60 percent of its children from Mexican American backgrounds, and backed the state decision -- including widely denounced president Mark Stegeman, a university economist with no educational background who is largely credited for gutting the district's chance by referring to the Mexican American Studies program as a "cult" in an administrative hearing last fall; 25-year-old Miguel Cuevas, and recently appointed university economist Alexandre Sugiyama -- are up for election in the fall.

"In the 90's we asked why our students were last to be considered for an ethnic studies program," wrote community leader Miguel Ortega, who ran for the school board last year and sought an appointment to a recent board vacancy after the untimely death of member Judy Burns. "Now we ask why we are the first to lose it. After successfully creating the Mexican American Studies program at TUSD in 1998, we knew we would need smart, ethical and courageous leaders to protect it. That fact hasn't changed. We just need to do a better job of understanding that the need for proper leadership to protect what is ours is constant. After last night's vote we should all realize that this need never changes."

In announcing her candidacy for the school board last night, long-time educator and expert Kristel Ann Foster said:

That sure didn't feel like an ending. Tonight's ruling may have been the Board's way to end all of this, but they've done none of the sort. Our community stood together, bonded together, they brought us together again and again, and again tonight. Do they realize what tight bonds they're creating? No one was broken. No one has given up. We're informed, we know the process. We're more united than ever, and will work together to elect new members of our community to represent us.