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Tucson school board suspends Mexican-American studies program

By Michael Martinez, CNN
updated 5:53 AM EST, Thu January 12, 2012
The Governing Board of the Tucson Unified School District voted late Tuesday to suspend immediately the Mexican-American studies department.
The Governing Board of the Tucson Unified School District voted late Tuesday to suspend immediately the Mexican-American studies department.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The program is suspended after an administrative judge said it violated a new state law
  • The state was going to withhold $15 million in annual aid to Tucson schools
  • One Tucson school board member calls the new law unconstitutional

(CNN) -- Tucson, Arizona, public schools suspended their Mexican-American studies program after an administrative law judge ruled it violated a new state law and the state said the local district was going to lose $15 million in annual aid, officials said.

The Governing Board of the Tucson Unified School District voted late Tuesday to suspend immediately the Mexican-American studies department, marking a turning point in a yearlong controversy over a new state law banning certain ethnic studies.

"The district shall revise its social studies core curriculum to increase its coverage of Mexican-American history and culture, including a balanced presentation of diverse viewpoints on controversial issues. The end result shall be a single common social studies core sequence through which all high school students are exposed to diverse viewpoints," the governing board said in a statement.

"The district shall study and bring to the board new measures designed to narrow the achievement gaps for traditionally underserved and economically disadvantaged students," the board said.

The board action came in the wake of Friday's order by Arizona State Superintendent John Huppenthal to withhold 10% -- or about $15 million a year -- of state aid to the Tucson district retroactive to August 15, 2011, according to a copy of the order posted on the district's website.

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The state superintendent's order was, in turn, made after last month's ruling by an administrative law judge that found the program's curriculum was teaching Latino history and culture "in a biased, political, and emotionally charged manner," and upheld state officials' findings that it violated a state law passed in 2010.

The Tucson Unified School District had appealed a decision by the law's chief backer, then-state schools superintendent Tom Horne, to shut down the program.

Horne left office at the end of 2010, but his successor, Huppenthal, backed Horne's ruling in June.

Under the law, the state can withhold 10% of its funding for the school district until the district changes the course.

During their appeal, district officials pointed out that an audit commissioned by Huppenthal praised the program and found "no observable evidence" that the classes violated state law.

A witness for the school system argued that teaching students "historical facts of oppression and racism" was less likely to promote "racial resentment" -- something specifically banned by the 2010 law -- than ignoring that history.

In last month's ruling, administrative law judge Lewis Kowal said the auditors observed only a limited number of classes. He added, "Teaching oppression objectively is quite different than actively presenting material in a biased, political, and emotionally charged manner."

Tucson educators who have challenged the constitutionality of the new law in court have defended the Mexican-American studies program as no different than African-American or Native American studies classes.

Tucson school board member Adelita Grijalva has charged that the new law provided no due process and was unconstitutional. She has said the new law is part of an anti-immigrant political climate in the Arizona statehouse.

At Tuesday night's meeting, Grijalva unsuccessfully urged the board to preserve the program, saying the district should appeal, according to CNN affiliate KGUN.

"This is a group of passionate people about their education and the education of their children. This is not a militarized group that wants to overthrow the government. This is not a group that is seeking ethnic solidarity. This is a group that wants their children to understand about their culture and their role in our American history and our lives," Grijalva said during the board meeting.

Grijalva was the sole "no" vote in the board's 4-1 decision to suspend the program.

The new schools law is the latest controversy in a state already roiled by an immigration crackdown law, known as SB 1070, that is being challenged on constitutional grounds in federal court. The Arizona-Mexico border is considered the nation's busiest for illegal immigration.

The law authorizes the state superintendent to stop any ethnic studies classes that promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, promote resentment toward a race or class of people, are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.

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