Not long after Huppenthal took office in January, he commissioned a $110,000 audit of the program. To the surprise and relief of the program's defenders, the audit concluded that the program complied with the law and that "students are taught to be accepting of multiple ethnicities of people."
Huppenthal rejected the audit. "When you're being watched, you don't do the things that are inappropriate," he said.
This summer, Huppenthal drew fire after suggesting similarities between the program and the Hitler Youth. Huppenthal said the remarks were made on "an academic basis" and misunderstood.
He no longer draws the comparison, he said, because it is too inflammatory. But in an interview, he said, "The thing that Hitler did was he used perceptions of historical injustice, he cast them in racial terms, and then he also referred to the Sudetenland as a stolen land — that's the parallel."
Lopez, the Cholla High teacher, counters that the material is designed to reach underperforming and marginalized students. "It's not un-American to expose narratives that aren't necessarily covered in traditional history texts," he said.
Supporters like to note that since the program's inception, 89% of its students have graduated high school — and that some non-Latinos enroll in the classes.
The passions surrounding the program were on display last month when Huppenthal traveled to Tucson to attend the screening of a documentary on a Phoenix school. He agreed to participate in a panel to discuss the movie, but Mexican American studies came up.
"Stop demonizing the teachers, demonizing the courses that teach kids to aspire to higher things, to do good in their lives," said Salomon R. Baldenegro, a former assistant dean at the University of Arizona.
Many in the crowd stood and offered applause, which slowly evolved into a rhythmic united clap.
Huppenthal replied that curriculum must reach a standard that all Arizonans can be proud of. "I'd ask those people who have challenged me, have they really met that standard over the last couple years?"
As he left the theater, Huppenthal continued talking with program supporters, teachers and parents as they followed him to the parking lot. "If the court finds nothing wrong, are you still going to ban ethnic studies?" one asked him.
"You're telling lies!" a woman shouted.
Lopez stepped up with his daughter at his side. "I'm one of the teachers that you have vilified. My daughter, she hopes to take these classes," he told Huppenthal. "Your action will deny her the opportunity to learn of her culture, of her past within the school system."
"We certainly hope not," Huppenthal said. Then he walked off, got in the passenger side of a car and rode away.