Get ready for the Arizona Department of Education's War on TUSD, Part 2. It's almost inevitable. Almost. Only Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal can call off the bitter, destructive battle by declaring a truce. And that's exactly what he should do.
If you remember, Tom Horne and Huppenthal turned TUSD's Mexican American Studies program into a Republican bête noire, using it to rile up the base and win their 2010 elections. The Legislature joined in the fun when it passed HB 2881, which gave Huppenthal the authority to play judge, jury and executioner and declare MAS illegal. By January 2012, the program was gone.
The problem is, there's a federal desegregation order saying TUSD has to create "culturally relevant courses of instruction" for African-American and Latino students, putting the district somewhere between a state rock and a federal hard place. TUSD wrote its new Culturally Relevant Curriculum—similar in many ways to the MAS curriculum—and began teaching the classes in August. To no one's surprise, Huppenthal issued an ultimatum: either water down the course content or expect the wrath of HB 2881 to come down on the district's head once again.
Huppenthal can and should defuse this whole ugly confrontation by simply letting TUSD go about its educational business. Here are a few reasons why:
The other 99.6 percent of Arizona's students deserve Huppenthal's attention. Students in the dismantled Mexican American Studies program never comprised more than four-tenths of 1 percent of Arizona's million-plus K-12 students. The time and effort Huppenthal spent crushing the program was wildly disproportionate to its size, and the same will be true if he goes after the new CRC program. Better to put all that energy into, say, persuading Huppenthal's former legislative colleagues to increase education funding next session, something Huppenthal says he supports. More funding would benefit 100 percent of Arizona's students.
Still, if students suffered academically from being in the MAS or CRC program, Huppenthal would have good reason to interfere. But in fact . . .
The kids are doing all right. Better than all right, actually. A study concluded that students in MAS scored higher on the AIMS test and graduated in greater numbers than similar TUSD students who weren't in the program. Some people disputed the findings, but one fact is indisputable. The students in the program were doing just fine academically, and most likely the CRC students will do just fine as well.
A suggestion: If Huppenthal wants to improve Arizona's student achievement, he should close some of the state's worst charter schools. A recent national study says the achievement scores of students in Arizona's charters are about 14 percent lower than similar students in school districts, and the main reason is, some lousy charters are bringing down the average. Huppenthal should conduct a thorough investigation and close down the charters that aren't educating their students.
Still, if TUSD students were forced to take classes taught from an African-American or Latino perspective against their wills, that would be a problem. But in fact . . .
It's the students' and parents' choice. No one was forced to take MAS courses, and the same is true with the new program. Students sign up because they want to take the classes, and parents give their consent because their children are thriving. Students who "don't like school" have been known to talk to their parents—proudly—about what they learned in class instead of muttering "Nothing" when asked what they did in school today. That's gotta make a parent happy.
And those same parents should be even happier knowing ...
Their children are learning the meaning of true grit. Huppenthal has spoken positively about the educational concept of "grit," the idea that students' tenacity in the face of frustration, can be as vital to their success as their grades or their AIMS scores. Anyone who has talked to students from the dismantled MAS program knows what a gritty bunch of kids they are. No wonder so many of them say they never would have made it to college, or earned their bachelor's degree, without the strength and tenacity—the grit—they gained in those MAS courses.
Come on, Superintendent Huppenthal. We're talking about a small program that's succeeding academically and is popular with students and parents. Declare a truce, move on, and let everyone get back to the important business of educating our children.