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Ex-schools Head Testifying in Mexican-American Studies Trial

  • Associated Press

FILE - Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal.

The former state official behind a ban on a popular Mexican-American studies program in Tucson is scheduled to spend Tuesday testifying in federal court over the law Arizona passed that ultimately ended the program.

Former Arizona schools chief Tom Horne, who was behind the battle against the program the year that lawmakers passed the state's landmark immigration law, has also defended the law that restricts ethnic studies courses in public schools as the state's former attorney general, saying it helped keep “radical” curriculum out of classrooms.

A federal judge is considering whether the law was enacted with discriminatory intent. The trial began June 26 and took a two week break before resuming Monday. It's expected to last through at least July 25.

The 2010 law prohibits courses if they promote resentment toward a race or a class of people, are designed primarily for peoples of a particular ethnic group, or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of peoples as individuals.

It shuttered the Mexican-American studies program at the Tucson Unified School District. Students and parents launched sometimes tense protests, saying the courses were important and improved student performance. A group of students filed a civil suit in federal court against the state, saying the law was overly broad and violates the right of free speech.

Most of the law has been upheld by the courts, but a judge will now determine whether it was enacted with discriminatory intent.

“The legislative history makes clear that the statute while, broader in nature, was directed at the Mexican-American studies program,” plaintiffs' attorney Jim Quinn said.

Arizona denies that the law was enacted with racial discrimination.

“With respect to TUSD's MAS program, the evidence shows that concerns existed that the program was based on a divisive, separatist, politicized pedagogy that taught students to see themselves as exemplars of an oppressed ethnicity rather than as individuals with the opportunity to control their own destinies and achieve their own goals,” state attorneys wrote in court filings.

The Tucson program began in 1998 and focused on Mexican-American history, literature and art in an effort to keep Mexican-American students in school and engaged. The TUSD board dismantled the program in January 2012, a month after the law took effect, to keep from losing state funding. Program advocates say students who participated in the program outperformed their peers in grades and standardized tests.

But the program's undoing was a long time in the making.

Horne first took issue with the program in 2006, when labor rights activist Dolores Huerta delivered a speech at a TUSD high school in which she said Republicans hate Latinos.

Horne got word of the comments and sent an aide to rebuff the remark. The aide, a Latino woman who told students she was a proud Republican, was met with protests. Horne attributed the protests to students in the Mexican-American Studies program.

In 2010, the same year Arizona passed its landmark immigration law known as SB1070, legislators approved the ethnic studies law. It took effect at the end of 2011.

But by 2015 the Tucson Unified School District said it was expanding the teaching of a “culturally relevant” curriculum developed to follow a decades-old racial desegregation lawsuit.

The announcement by the district's former superintendent was met with disapproval by the man who was at that time in charge of state schools, John Huppenthal. He spent his last hours in office threatening to cut school funding over the new courses. He had just lost a primary election after news reports revealed he had been posting derogatory comments- including about the Mexican-American Studies program- under a pseudonym online.

Huppenthal, who as a state senator helped pass the ban on ethnic studies, testified in court this month that he didn't think passing the 2010 law would necessarily end the Mexican-American studies program. He said he thought the program would be changed but not canceled.

Huppenthal told The Associated Press he felt the ongoing trial was irrelevant because the district has resumed some form of ethnic studies and is being monitored by the state.

“I think that Tucson Unified learned a valuable lesson which I hoped they did about the fact when you have something like this that's controversial, you need to follow state law, you need to follow a curriculum,” Huppenthal said.

The culturally relevant courses are now taught at all TUSD high schools, Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo said Monday. Trujillo says the district worked with the Arizona Department of Education to ensure the courses don't violate the state law. He said the courses are “very scripted” and include offerings like American history from an African-American perspective.

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