I know some people who support the ethnic studies programs at TUSD are cautiously optimistic about Education Superindent Diane Douglas' statements concerning the current Culturally Relevant Curriculum. I know Superintendent H.T. Sanchez has expressed hope he can work things out with Douglas. Me, I'm far from optimistic.
The one promising thing Douglas said is that she accepts the curriculum TUSD wrote for its ethnic studies courses, something Huppenthal wasn't willing to say. But that only means she interprets the words in the curriculum documents in a way that she can accept. When she sees how it's being implemented in the classroom, however, that doesn't fit her reading of the curriculum, and she says it needs to change
“If we continue to work together and (TUSD) Superintendent (H.T) Sanchez remains committed to correcting and supervising the implementation of the approved curricula, then we can avoid having to impose penalties on TUSD,” Douglas said.
The question is, what will she decide is appropriate implementation of the curriculum?
Douglas says she's OK with the use of music in the classrooms. That means absolutely nothing. Is she OK with the song by Rage Against The Machine that Huppenthal criticized? She doesn't say. It's possible her idea of using music in the classroom is playing mariachi music and "negro spirituals" as examples of Hispanic and African American culture, but all those angry songs that stir up resentment are inappropriate.
Douglas says she's OK with exposing students "to the suffering, trials and triumphs of all ethnic groups who have contributed to our state’s rich cultural mix." What, exactly, does that mean? It could mean it's OK with her to teach that slavery was awful and Hispanics were mistreated in the past, but now we're a post-racial society where a black man is president and Oprah Winfrey is one of the country's most respected women, so it's time for everyone, including the people teaching those classes, to stop playing the race card. What if a teacher wants to discuss the idea that the recent shootings of unarmed black men by police officers is an example of the continuing problems with racism in our society? Is that OK with Douglas, or is that promoting resentment? At this point, no one knows.
This is Thought Police stuff. People from the Department of Education will descend on TUSD on a regular basis to sit in on ethnic studies classes and determine if teachers are abiding by the anti-MAS law, SB 2281. That's a dangerous stifling of academic freedom. Academic freedom isn't absolute, of course, but when the only guideline for what materials are acceptable for use in the classroom and what ideas can be presented by a teacher is a judgement call by someone from the state department who is monitoring the class, that creates an oppressive atmosphere where teachers have to second guess how to present the information and ideas which form the substance of their courses.
If I were one of those teachers, I would be terrified that any materials I brought into the classroom or anything I said could result in the state deciding the program is in violation of the law. My job could be in jeopardy because someone decided I was promoting resentment toward a race or class or promoting the overthrow of the government. If I continued teaching the course in the way I believed it should be taught, I could even be accused of purposeful violation of the law and have criminal charges brought against me.
There's no way to predict what Douglas' next move will be. But Tucson has a years-long history of the Mexican American Studies program being scapegoated by two previous superintendents, Horne and Huppenthal. We know from statements Douglas has made that she's a conservative cultural warrior of the first order. It's naive to believe she'll be satisfied with anything less than a major overhaul of the way the courses are taught.
If Sanchez and those board members who are supportive of the program want to hope for the best, that's fine, but they should be prepared for the worst. They need to have clear guidelines for themselves about where they're willing to compromise—what they're willing to concede—and where they will draw the line and say, "This far, and no farther."