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Arizona withholds school funding over ethnic studies class

The state's superintendent finds Tucson's Mexican American studies program again in violation of state law. The program might have to be cut, a school district board member says.

January 06, 2012|By Stephen Ceasar, Los Angeles Times
  • John Huppenthal, Arizona's superintendent of public instruction, announces in June that Tucson's Mexican American studies program is a violation of state law.
John Huppenthal, Arizona's superintendent of public instruction,… (Ross D. Franklin, Associated…)

Tucson's Mexican American studies program remains in violation of state law, Arizona's public schools chief ruled Friday, ordering that millions in state funding be withheld from the school district until the program is dismantled or brought into compliance.

John Huppenthal, the state superintendent of public instruction, said the Tucson Unified School District program was in violation of a new state law prohibiting ethnic studies classes that are deemed to be divisive.

Among other things, the law bans classes primarily designed for a particular ethnic group or which "promote resentment toward a race or class of people."

Defenders of the program say it does no such thing. They say the classes push Latino students to excel and teach a long-neglected slice of America's cultural heritage: Chicano perspectives on literature, history and social justice.

Huppenthal ordered that beginning in February, 10% of the district's monthly apportionment of state aid be withheld until the program comes into compliance. He did not say the district should eliminate the program but did not offer any suggestions on how it could be changed to comply with state law.

It is the second instance in which Huppenthal ruled that the program violated the law. The first decision, in June, was appealed by the school district. Last week, an Arizona administrative law judge rejected that appeal, affirming Huppenthal's original decision.

The withholding of state funds will also be applied retroactively between August 2011 and January 2012. That money — about $5 million — will be taken out of the district's February allotment, said Ryan Ducharme, an Arizona Department of Education spokesman.

Should the district not bring the program into compliance, the district stands to lose about $14.4 million over the fiscal year, Ducharme said.

The district's governing board can also appeal the decision in Superior Court. The board will discuss the matter in its next meeting on Tuesday, a district spokeswoman said.

"We would find it nearly impossible for them to cure the program," Huppenthal said. "The problems are so widespread and so deep that it would be very difficult. These are decisions they would have to make."

Miguel Cuevas, a member of the district board, said that Huppenthal's decision to withhold funds retroactively took the board members by surprise. They will now review the decision and determine whether Huppenthal was within his legal rights to withhold funding while the district was appealing his first decision.

Cuevas told the Los Angeles Times that because the district would not be able to weather the loss of more than $14 million in state funding, the board would have to consider several options, including the elimination of the program.

"I cannot go down the path of losing $15 million," he said. "That is something I cannot see happen."

The law does not outlaw all ethnic studies courses in Arizona, but was framed in a way to target the Tucson program. The program's opponents — led by Huppenthal, a veteran state senator elected superintendent of public instruction in 2010 — say that by framing historical events in racial terms, the teachers promote groupthink and victimhood.

The classes, Huppenthal said in a statement, assert that "Latino minorities have been and continue to be oppressed by a Caucasian majority."

A separate case pending in federal court contends that the state law is unconstitutional. Eleven teachers and two students have requested an injunction to halt its implementation. A federal judge in Tucson heard arguments on the injunction last month but will soon rule on Huppenthal's motion to dismiss the case.

stephen.ceasar@latimes.com

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