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Tucson School Board To Decide On Mexican American Studies Program

Posted: 01/10/12 05:53 PM ET

Tucson is a community in turmoil. It has been tied in knots for more than a year over the issue of how best to educate its children in a world of shrinking resources and high poverty.

Propagandists -- both pro and con -- have embroiled locals in continuous debate over the merits of the Mexican American Studies (MAS) program in the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD). Fanning the flames of hatred and hyperbole, supporters and detractors have distributed MAS facts and myths nationwide through blogs, newspapers, public appearances, radio broadcasts, e-mail blasts, and social media. Charges of racism and white privilege have been hurled at those who ask for program evaluation data or information on course content; from the right, MAS instructors have been called "bullies" and "thugs" who are indoctrinating children with Marxism and hatred.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012 could be a day of reckoning for Mexican American Studies.

Legal Wrangling over MAS

The state of Arizona recently found TUSD's controversial MAS program to be in violation of an Arizona law banning any school curriculum that promotes resentment against a race or class of people, is designed primarily for one ethnic group, and advocates for ethnic solidarity, a law that was created by former Superintendent of Public Instruction and current state Attorney General Tom Horne specifically to bring down the MAS program.

Administrative Law Judge Lewis D. Kowal, who presided over TUSD's appeal of Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal's June 2011 decision against MAS, said that MAS violates A.R.S. §15-112. Not surprisingly, Huppenthal announced on January 6, 2012 that he agreed with Kowal and that TUSD would be fined $5 million--10 percent of its budget, retroactive to the August 2011 appeal. In addition, if TUSD doesn't come into compliance with the law by changing or eliminating MAS, the district will lose $15 million from this year's budget.

The Struggle for Survival

But MAS is not going down without a fight. Stalwarts are demanding that the TUSD board fight for MAS and further appeal legal rulings against the program. In an effort to stay alive, supporters are rallying left-leaning groups of all stripes--Tucson Occupiers, Veterans for Peace, local Communists, the UNIDOS student group, and even the Pima County Democratic Party--to march in solidarity with them to the school board meeting.

At this meeting, members of the TUSD Governing Board are expected to vote on the fate of MAS. Will they accept the state's ruling that MAS violates the law? Will they vote to dismantle or modify MAS? Or will they further appeal the findings and accept the multi-million-dollar fines?

Fifteen million dollars would be a major blow to TUSD's operating budget, which has suffered multiple years of forced belt-tightening at the hands of the Arizona Legislature. Nonetheless, MAS supporters insist that the majority minority school district needs MAS and the other programs under the Ethnic Studies umbrella (Native American Studies, African American Studies, and Pan Asian Studies) to address educational disparities and satisfy desegregation orders.

Graduation Rates and MAS Reach

Ethnic Studies was created by a Blue Ribbon Panel in 1999 to reduce dropout rates among minority students and close the achievement gap between white students and non-white students. Has it achieved those goals?

Supporters claim that the MAS program is highly effective and has improved graduation rates, standardized test scores, and college achievement of MAS students, but a March 2011 TUSD report showed no difference in graduation rates between students who took at least one MAS courses and those who never took an MAS course.

The dilemma with the conflicting evaluation data is three-fold:
1) both sides are correct up to a point, depending upon how the data analyses are conducted;
2) some of the analyses lack statistical controls (specifically gender and/or income) that could make a difference in the outcome;
3) some of the sample sizes are very small--fewer than 100 students).

When analyzed on an individual level, MAS classes appear to have a positive benefit for the handful of students who take the courses. Personal testimonies from current and former students about the life-changing power of MAS classes abound. The report's graphics show that graduation rates of seniors who took at least one MAS class are much higher than the graduation rates of their peers. In this data set, the MAS sample is very small, and there is no breakdown for other factors that could affect performance, like income or gender. Girls are more likely to graduate from high school and college; not addressing gender is a serious limitation of these data and multiple TUSD and MAS data sets.

When analyzed on a macro level, using a data cohort, the MAS graduation effect disappears, according to TUSD. The data taken from the 2010 Graduation Cohort that TUSD statisticians used to analyze the program are broken down by income but not by gender. The far right set of columns shows an 83 percent graduation rate for all students, regardless of income or MAS status, but a closer look shows that taking at least one MAS class did increase graduation rates for very low income students. Seventy-nine percent of MAS students in this cohort graduated vs 64 percent of students who never took even one MAS class; again, though, the MAS group is very small -- 57 students.

Income disparity is a real issue in TUSD, and any educational program that can raise people up from poverty is worth investigating further. The same 2010 Graduation Cohort shows that 80 percent of the very high income students are white, and 70 percent of the very low income students are Latino. (Income was defined by participation in federal school lunch program plus census track.)

Although MAS was created to improve dropout rates among Latino students and may in fact do that at least among low income students, the program currently serves less than 1 percent of the 32,000 Latinos enrolled in TUSD. Since school year 2000-01, MAS has served 8656 Latino students and 1107 students of other ethnicities, according to data provided by the TUSD Governing Board. Between fall 2000 and fall 2010, Latino enrollment in MAS ranged from 153 to 1002 per semester, with an average of 412 students taking at least one MAS class per semester. During this same time period, the percentage of Latino students enrolled in TUSD increased as white students left the inner city district. In 1996-97, 45.4 percent of TUSD students were white, and 41.8 percent were Latino. In 2010-11, the breakdown had shifted to 28.9 percent white and 56.2 percent Latino.

The Path Forward

Where does the TUSD Governing Board go from here? Dueling data sets, conflicting ideologies, and boisterous bloggers have muddied the waters and caused confusion on the MAS issue.

If the TUSD board votes to come into compliance with A.R.S. §15-112 by eliminating or changing MAS, they will be viewed as sensible and fiscally responsible by some and labeled racist by others.

If the TUSD board votes to stand with MAS and fight the state of Arizona, it will lose $15 million this year and spend months distracted by this issue, while ignoring other student groups and district problems.

Losing $15 million will hurt the majority of students in TUSD, while protecting the status quo of MAS classes and teachers who currently serve fewer than 300 Latino students.

Ironically, the majority of students who will be hurt by the budget cut are also Latino.

Pamela Powers Hannley is a Tucson-based writer and political activist with a master's degree in public health. She blogs at http://tucsoncitizen.com/tucson-progressive/ and has been contributing to OfftheBus since Fall 2011. If you would like to contribute as a citizen reporter to The Huffington Post's coverage of American politics, please contact us at www.offthebus.org