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The Elective Question

The TUSD board considers making a fundamental change regarding the district's ethnic-studies programs

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The future of the Tucson Unified School District's ethnic-studies programs could be determined at the next governing board meeting, on Tuesday, April 26.

A proposal to offer the classes only as electives may be brought up for a vote. At the same meeting, TUSD Superintendent John Pedicone is expected to present a detailed report on where desegregation funds are spent in the district's four ethnic studies programs: African-American, Mexican-American, Native American and Pan-Asian studies.

The report was requested by governing board president Mark Stegeman and approved at the Tuesday, April 12, meeting. Stegeman, Michael Hicks and Miguel Cuevas voted yes, while Adelita Grijalva voted no. Judy Burns did not vote.

Grijalva said examining only the ethnic-studies departments troubled her, especially because the departments receive funding from other sources, not just desegregation funds.

In a recent guest column in the Arizona Daily Star, Stegeman wrote that he supported making ethnic-studies classes electives. The classes can now fulfill credit requirements for English and history.

Cuevas told the Tucson Weekly that he's not sure whether a vote on the electives question will be on the April 26 agenda.

"I'm open to all options at this point. When I met with the Mexican American Studies (Community) Advisory Board, they seemed to be OK with the possibility of moving the courses (to electives)," Cuevas said. "I think it is a viable option."

However, Raul Aguirre, co-chair of the advisory board, said Cuevas' description is inaccurate.

"One of our members, Isabel Garcia, said, 'If you vote for electives, you are beginning the process of dismantling the Mexican-American studies program.' We told (Cuevas) we respected his position, but disagreed. We expressed that same position when we met with Mark Stegeman two weeks later," Aguirre said. "We were pleasant, but there was no agreement."

The ethnic-studies classes are the target of a new law, passed last year, that was pushed by Tom Horne, who was the state's superintendent of public instruction through January 2011. Now the state's attorney general, Horne remains a vocal opponent of the classes.

John Huppenthal, the current superintendent, said while on the campaign trail that he would stand by the law.

Critics of the plan to change the classes to electives say that most high school students give precedence to classes which fulfill requirements over electives, and that therefore, turning ethnic-studies classes into electives would effectively lead to their demise.

Pedicone told the Weekly that he knows of only one governing board member who has made it clear where he stands: Stegeman.

"I understand personally why there is concern about them being electives, but another area we are looking at is enrollment (in Mexican-American studies classes), which is down for next year. ... I think part of the reason why is the controversy that surrounds the classes," Pedicone said.

Ethnic-studies supporters say a move to turn the classes into electives would be premature, for two reasons. First, a lawsuit filed last year by 11 ethnic-studies teachers against Horne and the state continues to make its way through the court system. Second, a team hired by Huppenthal in March to audit the Mexican-American studies program is just completing its study and won't have a report until mid- to late-May.

Some ethnic-studies proponents view any discussion of changes to the classes as a sign that Pedicone has an agenda to end ethnic studies.

"It is really the furthest from the truth," Pedicone said. "This is so politically out of control. If anything, I see the value in expanding the program, because the results show how successful the program is with students."

Meanwhile, supporters are waiting to see what happens with the controversial audit. In March, the Arizona Department of Education spent more than $80,000 to hire Cambium Learning Group to conduct the examination of Mexican-American studies classes. After questions were raised about one member of the audit team—who apparently ran into trouble due to questionable activities while employed in New Jersey—Huppenthal stood behind Cambium when the company announced the investigator would no longer be part of the audit.

On April 6, Save Ethnic Studies, a group which supports the teachers' lawsuit against the state, hand-delivered a letter to Pedicone criticizing his decision to allow the audit team into TUSD schools, and made it clear that the Mexican-American studies teachers in the lawsuit are off limits.

Martinez said the plaintiffs cannot communicate with the audit team, because the audit team members are agents of the state—and the state is being sued. The audit team was told by Martinez that they can only observe classrooms and ask for each day's curriculum through a third party; Martinez also said that teachers cannot be videotaped and that the plaintiffs can't participate in any focus groups with auditors in the room.

"They are here to find evidence ... but the process hasn't really started yet. We will file a motion for a summary judgment this month, and hopefully by the end of May, we will better understand what Huppenthal's position is. ... The state has 30 days to respond to our request," Martinez said.

Pedicone said he's observed audit-team members talk to parents, kids and staff members, and he said he appreciates what Huppenthal is doing, since the state superintendent can "at any moment say, 'This is out of compliance.' They don't have to take any testimony before making that decision."

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