Bad Education

Arizona took a shot at the state's Latino residents last week after a judge ruled that Tucson’s Mexican American Studies (MAS) program violates ARS 15-112, a new Arizona law targeted at ethnic-studies programs in the state.

In response to the decision, state Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal announced that the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) must revise or drop its Mexican-American Studies program, appeal the decision, or face a 10 percent cut in state funding.

ARS 15-112 prohibits classes that “promote the overthrow of the United States 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.” Then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne authored the bill in 2010, and it was signed into effect by Governor Jan Brewer. Horne ran a winning campaign for state attorney general that year on the basis of having “ended ethnic studies in Arizona”; Huppenthal, who picked up where Horne left off in June 2011, ran for Horne’s old seat on the same platform.

The good news about last week’s ruling against the MAS program is that the judge who oversaw the case, Lewis D. Kowal, is a state administrative law judge whose rulings have little enforcement power; his decision is, in effect, only a recommendation. Huppenthal had the final say, and since he ran on opposing the MAS program, his decision to abide by the judge’s recommendation is unsurprising.

Now, the only real hope for Tucson’s MAS program lies with the federal courts. Those prospects look fairly good given that the reason the ethnic-studies program exists in Tucson is because TUSD was complying with a 1978 desegregation order resulting from a lawsuit brought by Latino and African American students. Ethnic-studies courses were implemented in 1998 to recruit more minority students to the district and improve overall performance—a goal that was being met according to more than one study on the program.

But in 2009, the desegregation order was lifted by a district court, and TUSD entered "post-unitary status," a somewhat vague designation created by the U.S. Supreme Court. The term signifies that a school has been cleared of racial discrimination in six areas: student assignment, faculty, staff, transportation, extracurricular activities, and facilities.

Two years after the order was lifted, in June 2011, the state of Arizona passed the anti-ethnic-studies bill. The next month, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision to lift the desegregation order. In a separate suit, TUSD teachers and students have charged that this bill is unconstitutional.

Last week, Ninth Circuit Judge Walter Tashima heard testimony to help him decide whether to enjoin ARS 15-112 before he makes a final decision. Let's hope Tashima will take into account the findings of an audit Huppenthal commissioned from Texas-based Cambium Learning, Inc.

The report, which is available online, concludes that "no observable evidence was present to suggest that any classroom within Tucson Unified School District is in direct violation of the law [Arizona Revised Statutes] 15-112(A).” The audit also found that the program improved standardized-testing results, graduation rates, and college-matriculation rates for participating students.

That didn’t stop Huppenthal from implying that he used the study to inform his decision against the MAS program at a press conference in June of last year, when he announced that TUSD and the MAS Department had 60 days to shape up or the district would lose 10 percent of its state funding. He offered no suggestion as to how the department could improve its standing and, according to Phoenix New Times reporter Stephen Lemons:

Huppenthal sat on the report for about a month, and released it only during a very misleading press conference yesterday. Journalists there had no time to read or even browse the 120-page report … and the presser itself did not discuss the report's actual findings. ... And since reporters knew nothing of the actual content of the report, they mostly swallowed what they heard.

A second audit conducted by David Scott, TUSD’s director of accountability and research, also found measurable, positive differences in students enrolled in the MAS program.

“I find that over the last six years, students who complete a Mexican American Studies class during their senior year are more likely to graduate than comparison group seniors,” Scott writes. “The difference in completion rates ranges from 5-11 percent higher.”

The TUSD school board had been waiting on a decision from Huppenthal before making its next move. Now that Huppenthal has found the program in violation of ARS 15-112, the board is expected to ban MAS by a vote of three to two at its next meeting on January 10.

Though MAS activists continue to demand that TUSD appeal Judge Kowal’s decision, they have to wait to see if Judge Tashima will rule in federal court that ARS 15-112 is in violation of the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Comments

The author fairly and, I think, accurately, recites the long-term history of the Tucson school district's ethnic studies program. But on more recent issues she is selective in her analysis, to say the least. I've isolated a few points...
"Now, the only real hope for Tucson’s MAS program lies with the federal courts. "
In fact, the choice about the future of the MAS program lies where the only meaningful decisions ever could have been made, with the district governing board. The board always could have acted to avoid the wasteful spending on litigation and the controversy, but consistently buckled to the very effective pressure of the radicalized MAS faculty. A recent change in the TUSD board make-up suggests that circumstance may change as soon as tonight.
Personally, I suspect the author may be right in handicapping where the federal judge may go with the constitutionality of the state law, but that decision may be meaningless if the TUSD board manages to grow a spine.
"The (Cambium) report... concludes that 'no observable evidence was present to suggest that any classroom within Tucson Unified School District is in direct violation of the law.' The audit also found that the program improved standardized-testing results, graduation rates, and college-matriculation rates for participating students."
Perhaps the most effect evidence portrayed in Judge Kowal's 37-page decision (also available online) was his deconstruction of the Cambium report, in which observers did little more than sit in Ethnic Studies classes in a fraction of the classes.
The auditors reviewed almost no course materials or texts; reviewed virtually no student work (Testimony at the Kowal hearings revealed the MAS department lied to the auditors, claiming student work always went home with the students and, so, was unavailable for review); made no 'surprise' visits (the department director, Sean Arce, had been tipped off to their schedule). As for the auditors contention that the program caused student achievement to improve, they conducted no independent research to arrive at that conclusion, but rather relied entirely on the very suspect "studies" performed by the MAS faculty itself.
The auditors did learn that the MAS educators kept almost no curricula or lesson plans on file, a fundamental violation of education protocol. In short, the educators appear to be just winging it in most of the classes. Of the handful of curriculum units the auditors found, a third of them included material and subject matter that even the demonstrably supportive auditors concluded were highly political and inappropriate for high school students.
Last, regarding Cambium, the auditors are not lawyers, so their views on whether the MAS program violated the law or not are, to say the least, suspect. Their undisguised enthusiasm for the program, often in clear contradiction of their own findings, in many cases, projected an embarrassing, less-than-objective bias.
"A second audit conducted by David Scott, TUSD’s director of accountability and research, also found measurable, positive differences in students enrolled in the MAS program."
Scott is a fine researcher, but he has never produced anything approaching an "audit." Indeed, critics of the program long have wished he would. He's an honest guy.
Briefly, Scott appears to have produced some carefully selected data that cast the program in a positive light. As Scott himself has noted, any decent statistician can make numbers work for you.
Notably, he produced the data after an email he had written was made public that contradicted many of the most obnoxious claims of the program advocates. With all due respect to Mr. Scott, he clearly had enraged the powerful cadre in the TUSD Ethnic Studies department with his honest email, and he was acting to cover his butt with some make-nice data. Just FYI, Scott never released anything under his own name. An Ethnic Studies support group got hold of the "butt-covering" data and published it on their own web site. But, simply put, there was no Scott-produced "study."
The issue of student achievement long has been at the heart of the debate over TUSD's program. Suffice to say, there never has been anything like a peer-reviewed study of student achievement. Never. Ever. For many years, the department (and, indeed, the district) regularly cited a handful of charts cobbled together by the program's founder Augustine Romero that made all manner of fanciful claims about the program's academics-improving magic. None of Romero's data ever has been reviewed by an honest, independent panel of peers for a reason: They wouldn't pass muster.
Other than that, I thought it was a fine essay.
D.M.

One last thing...
Sorry, but I forgot to mention the one line that got my juices flowing about this oped in the first place. It was the very first...
"Arizona took a shot at the state's Latino residents last week..."
Really? Is that what the author wants to say? Not even the harshest critic of TUSD's Ethnic Studies program would dispute that this debate is emotional and that the rhetoric is intense. To use that sort of language in the context of this very heated political debate, especially considering Arizona's very recent tragic events in Tucson, is irresponsible. If it merely was a poor choice of words, that would be one thing. But I really do not get this impression that the author meant to say what she said. That was a mean-spirited and wholly inappropriate thing to say. And I don't care what side of the issue you come from.

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