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Diverse Viewpoints

The 38-year-old TUSD desegregation case could lead to the revival of Mexican-American studies



On Feb. 2, attorneys from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) asked a federal judge to intercede and do what the Tucson Unified School District governing board was unwilling to do—keep Mexican-American studies classes open.

According to Sylvia Campoy, a plaintiff representative in MALDEF's 38-year-old desegregation battle against the district, supporters of the beleaguered MAS program must be patient as they wait for a decision from either a court-appointed desegregation expert, called a special master, or the U.S. District Court itself.

"In 60 to 90 days, the court could make a decision," Campoy said Thursday, Feb. 9, during an interview on the local radio talk show All Things Political With Steve Leal.

The TUSD governing board voted 4-1 in January to suspend MAS when State Schools Superintendent John Huppenthal threatened to withhold millions of dollars in state funding. Teachers were told they had to change their curriculum halfway through the year, and books used to teach Mexican-American literature and history were pulled from the classrooms. Some teachers, like Chicano literature teacher Curtis Acosta, were told to avoid using works such as Shakespeare's The Tempest, because of possible social-injustice themes.

The district is now receiving national attention for banning books, and is under intense criticism by some for not fighting to keep the classes going in the face of an overtly racist law.

Campoy, a former TUSD teacher and school board member, and the former director of the city of Tucson's Equal Opportunity programs, said it didn't have to end up this way.

"What is very sad for me is to recognize the fact that (the TUSD board) did not utilize the (federal desegregation) order to defend the MAS program ... over the state law that was created to dismantle it," Campoy said. "The district did not go to Huppenthal or to (state Attorney General Tom) Horne when they could have—or, in my opinion, should have."

Campoy said that district officials should have told Huppenthal: "We don't need to comply with your state law, because there is a court order in place."

MALDEF attorney Nancy Ramirez, whose organization has represented Latino students in the desegregation case since 1974, said TUSD has 20 days to respond to her Feb. 2 filing asking the court to intervene on behalf of Mexican-American studies. Ramirez said the special master has 30 days to provide a recommendation to the court, too.

"(The special master) may have asked the parties to respond more quickly, but we haven't been privy to those communications," Ramirez said.

The parties working with the special master also include the U.S. Department of Justice, plaintiffs representing African-American students, and TUSD. Thus far, nothing has been filed by the district in response.

The desegregation case began when two families—the Fishers, representing African-American students, and the Mendozas, representing Mexican-American students—filed a lawsuit to force the district to change discriminatory practices and policies. A tax was eventually created as a funding mechanism to help with desegregation efforts.

Although a settlement was reached in 1978, legal maneuvering continued until U.S. District Court Judge David Bury approved TUSD's Post Unitary Status Plan in 2009. But on Aug. 10, 2011, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals remanded the case for further judicial oversight, and appointed a special master to bring the district into compliance.

Campoy said the appointment of the special master was cause for celebration. "Now the court is going to have an ongoing register of what is going on," she said.

Historically, the district has ignored the community's concerns and input, Campoy said, including an independent citizens' committee, as well as the Post Unitary Status Plan—which called for expanding Mexican-American studies.

Shortly after the TUSD governing board's decision to dismantle Mexican-American studies, Adelita Grijalva—the only TUSD board member who voted to keep fighting for the program—spoke at a community meeting regarding the decision not to pursue an appeal. She said fellow board members recognized they were violating the Post Unitary Status Plan—but it didn't really matter, considering the district is so far out of compliance.

"There's no question in my mind that there is a double standard—and it is pretty transparent to anyone who has kept up with (Mexican-American studies)," Campoy said. In the most recent MALDEF filing, the "document ... very tactfully argues that the district shouldn't have (ended the program) under the deseg order that is in place now" without permission from the federal court, she said.

The TUSD board last month passed a resolution—which is being touted by some as evidence that the district wants to maintain Mexican-American studies—to put Mexican-American history and culture into the social studies core curriculum. The resolution states that by August 2012, staff members will present a plan to the board that will include "diverse viewpoints."

However, Campoy said she wonders what kind of program will be created, considering the process will include input from people who have said publicly that they are against Mexican-American studies classes, including board member Michael Hicks.

"If they go forward, we will wind up with a program that it was not intended (to be) to begin with," Campoy said, arguing that program needs to be reinstated as it was.

"Many of us are angry in the community, but underneath the anger, there is always, always sadness," Campoy said. "... Yes we get angry; yes, we get disgusted; yes, we get frustrated—but beneath all of that is real sadness that our district is time and time and time again not doing what's right for Latino kids, and is therefore not doing what's right for all kids."

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