PHOENIX - A major school district in Tucson is violating a new state law by continuing an ethnic studies program designed primarily for Hispanics, outgoing Arizona schools chief Tom Horne said last week.
The finding on the day Horne leaves office to become state attorney general could cost the Tucson Unified School District nearly $15 million, which amounts to 10 percent of its annual state funding.
The district has 60 days to comply with the law that took effect Dec. 31. The finding could be appealed to an administrative law judge, said Horne, who expects the district to comply.
Horne, a Republican, contends the district must eliminate its Mexican American studies program, or incoming Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal would have to decide to withhold funding.
“In my eight years as superintendent of schools, I’ve never seen a district not come into compliance when faced with a severe financial penalty,” Horne said.
District superintendent John Pedicone did not immediately return calls seeking comment from The Associated Press on Monday. But he told The Arizona Daily Star that an appeal is likely if Huppenthal orders funding withheld.
“We believe we are not out of compliance,” Pedicone told the Star. “If the question is could we afford that financial decrease, the answer is no. It would cripple the district, quite frankly.”
Horne fought for years to get the district to eliminate its Mexican American ethnic studies program, which he says promotes racial resentment toward whites while segregating students by race.
The state Legislature passed a law last year banning classes designed primarily for students of a particular race, that advocate ethnic solidarity or promote resentment toward a certain ethnic group. It also prohibits classes that promote the overthrow of the U.S. government.
Horne said he found that the Tucson district’s program violated all four prohibitions in the law, although only one violation can trigger the financial penalties.
Other district ethnic studies programs, including African American and Native American, were not included in the decision. The programs focus on history and literature and include information about the influence of a particular ethnic group.
For example, in the Mexican-American Studies program, an American history course explores the role of Hispanics in the Vietnam War, and a literature course emphasizes Latino authors.
Horne believes the program teaches Hispanic students that they are oppressed by white people.
“This is a nonpartisan issue,” he said.
Former Tucson teacher John Ward has been a vocal opponent of the programs, which he said prey on smart but impressionable students.
District officials said in a letter to Horne last week that the program doesn't promote resentment and they believe it complies with the new law.
About 1,500 students at six high schools in the district are enrolled in the program. Elementary and middle school students also are exposed to the ethnic studies curriculum. The district is 56 percent Hispanic.
A group of 11 teachers in the program sued Horne and the state education board in federal court in October, seeking to have the new law blocked on constitutional grounds. They argue its enforcement would violate First Amendment speech and 14th Amendment equal protection under the law provisions. The case is pending.
Deyanira Nevarez, project director for a group raising money to support the teachers’ legal efforts, said Horne’s arguments are unsupported by the facts. The classes are designed from a Latino perspective but are not only for Hispanic students. They draw non-Latino students generally proportionate to the school population.
In addition, the classes “don’t teach to overthrow the American government or the country,” Nevarez said.
“They teach democracy. They teach students about the process,” Nevarez said. “They do not promote any kind of resentment at all. And ethnic solidarity - what exactly does that even mean? None of those terms are even defined in the law.”