02/08/2013 12:43 pm ET

Victory Over Tucson School District Could Lead to Mexican American Studies Reinstatement

Juan Lopez, of Phoenix, show his support of the Tucson Unified School District, after Superintendent of Public Instruction Jo
Juan Lopez, of Phoenix, show his support of the Tucson Unified School District, after Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal announces that the Tucson Unified School District violates state law by teaching it's Mexican American Studies Department's ethic studies program at a news conference at the Arizona Department of Education Wednesday, June 15, 2011, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

A federal judge has ordered the Tucson Unified School District to end segregation and implement culturally relevant courses such as the ones taught in the Mexican American Studies Program that were recently banned by an Arizona law.

In his ruling announced Wednesday, Judge David C. Bury ordered that the courses reflect the history, experience and culture of Mexican American and African American communities. The courses could be offered to students starting this upcoming school year.

Nancy Ramirez, a lead attorney in the case, applauded Judge Bury’s order, saying culturally relevant courses have been proven to “engage students and helps them do better academically.”

Mexican American Studies could make a comeback

Arizona banned such courses in 2010 when the state legislature passed and Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law HB 2281. Efforts to pass the law were led by former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, who is now the state’s attorney general.

The law, which targeted the Mexican American Studies Program, prohibits schools to teach classes that promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, promote racial resentment, encourage ethnic solidarity and are designed for students of a particular ethic race.

In 2011, Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal declared that the courses taught under the Mexican American Studies Program violated the new state law and forced the program to shut down. Last July, the program changed it’s name and no longer taught culturally relevant courses.

But Judge Bury ruled Wednesday that the courses could be reinstated and that Arizona could not intervene in the case to litigate the issue, because the ruling doesn’t override the Arizona law banning these courses.

“Even if it did–the Supreme Court has held that state laws cannot be allowed to impede a desegregation order,” the court order reads.

In a statement emailed to VOXXI, Huppenthal responded to Judge Bury’s ruling saying, “We anticipated that the Tucson school district would respond to the previous administrative law judge findings by building a culturally relevant curriculum that complies with state law.”

“We have two roles going forward, first to review this curriculum they develop to ensure it complies with state standards and state law; and secondly to ensure what they teach in the classroom does not violate state law,” Huppenthal added.

Tucson school district ordered to end segregation

The culturally relevant courses are among a long list of provisions in a plan that aims to eliminate vestiges of past discrimination against Latino and African American Students in the Tucson Unified School District.

For nearly 40 years, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) has been battling in court to have the school district end segregation and improve educational outcomes for Latino and African American students. Doing so would bring the school district to a unitary status. A school district attains unitary status once it proves that it has eliminated segregation.

In 1974, MALDEF filed a desegregation lawsuit against the Tucson Unified School District on the behalf of Latino students. Four years later, the court approved a settlement and identified steps the district needed to take over a five-year period to eliminate desegregation.

But court documents show that never happened.

Judge Bury said in his ruling Wednesday that the school district “had not acted in good faith because over those 25 years the District had not addressed ongoing segregation and discrimination in TUSD, both physical segregation and unequal academic opportunities for Black and Hispanic minority students.”

The Tucson Unified School District is now being ordered to implement a court-approved plan dubbed Unitary Status Plan to help it eliminate segregation and attain unitary status. Willis Hawley, an expert on race relations and academic achievement, drafted the plan.

Ramirez told VOXXI the plan lists a number of provisions that “will help equalize the educational opportunities for Latino students and African American students.”

Besides the culturally relevant courses, the plan includes a district-wide professional development plan for all educators working with English Language Learners (ELL). It also calls on the school district to ensure Latino and African American students have equal access to advance learning programs and courses.

Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of MALDEF, applauded Judge Bury’s order saying it “promises to dramatically improve educational opportunities for Latino students in Tucson.”

“The plan addresses critical issues, such as the education of English learners, discriminatory disparities in access to critical programs, and the restoration of culturally relevant courses to the curriculum,” Saenz added.



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