Arizona Ethnic Studies Showdown: As Teachers Heal Tucson, Will Extremist Officials Escalate Crisis This Week?

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Arizona Ethnic Studies Showdown: As Teachers Heal Tucson, Will Extremist Officials Escalate Crisis This Week?

Only days after college-bound Ethnic Studies graduates collected their diplomas and a widely praised Tucson forum allowed the community to discuss the city's acclaimed Ethnic Studies/Mexican American Studies Program, the increasingly isolated state superintendent of education plans to release the results of his delayed and costly audit for compliance with Arizona's controversial Ethnic Studies ban.

In essence: With the city just now recovering from its own Tucson Unified School District's (TUSD) notorious bungling of two school board meetings last month, the Ethnic Studies/Mexican American Studies (MAS) teachers, students and Save Ethnic Studies supporters are bringing together diverse communities to effectively serve the district's students, while Arizona state superintendent John Huppenthal joins the state's radical descent into extremism and threatens to escalate this manufactured crisis.

With his widely discredited audit in hand, if Huppenthal, who served as a featured speaker at an extremist Tea Party rally that conjured despicable images of President Obama as a "Nazi," declares the Ethnic Studies/MAS Program to be out of compliance, the state superintendent can call on TUSD to terminate the program or punish the district with a $15 million withholding of state funds.

At last week's heartfelt forum at the Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Tucson, four members of the TUSD school board -- including critics of the Ethnic Studies Program -- and intergenerational citizens from across the district heard from a panel of distinguished education experts on the program's long-time mandate and documented success in alleviating the achievement gap among area students.

Soundly debunking the state's charges that the program teaches children to "overthrow the government" and promote ethnic chauvinism, university scholars and administrators explained the widely accepted approach of teaching culturally relevant curriculum. One Ethnic Studies/MAS student and UNIDOS activist, a Tucson native of Pakistani-American origin, spoke on how the culturally relevant courses transcended ethnic barriers and improved her and fellow students' academic performance and assisted their intellectual and emotional growth and achievement. Independent assessments have confirmed the program's unprecedented success over the past decade.

Huppenthal's absence was no less noticeable than that of TUSD Superintendent John Pedicone, whose use of excessive police force and conflicting communication with various community interests have been widely denounced as a disgrace and public relations nightmare for the city and school district. In his "State of the District" last week, Pedicone dismissed the Ethnic Studies crisis as a "distraction," and in a breath-taking revision of events, claimed "that threats made against our students and the audience at the next board meeting resulted in the Tucson Police Department having to make several arrests." In truth, Pedicone had 69-year-old Tucson educator Lupe Castillo, among others, arrested at a May 3 board meeting for attempting to read Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from the Birmingham Jail."

Even the Arizona State Board of Education distanced themselves from Huppenthal's extremist crusade last week, when they were deemed "nominal or passive parties" in the Ethnic Studies teachers' filing for a motion for summary judgement in federal court, in a case that sues Huppenthal on the basis of the state ban's unconstitutionality.

Huppenthal is no stranger to extremist controversy. Having weathered a recall campaign as a state legislator and even a charge of theft, he won his election last fall on a campaign with inflammatory ads that he was "one of us" and planned to "stop la raza."

A featured speaker with notorious state senate president Russelll Pearce at an extremist Tea Party rally in 2009 that produced catcalls of President Obama as a "Nazi," Huppenthal has referred to Tucson as a "renegade" district. On Huppenthal's first day in office, he declared his intent to inflict "shock therapy" on Tucson's main school district. Notwithstanding even more budget cuts, Arizona already ranks at the bottom of most education charts.

No one in the state assumes this week's already discredited audit results, of course, will have any bearing on Huppenthal's obsessive witch-hunt against the Ethnic Studies program. The Ethnic Studies ban has been a long-time obsession of former state school superintendent and present Attorney General Tom Horne, a Canadian immigrant who has charged that the Ethnic Studies Program teaches "irrational mob behavior." In an extraordinary admission last year, Horne's former deputy Margaret Dugan told a campaign crowd that Horne "introduced" the Ethnic Studies ban bill to the legislature because "he wasn't able to get people to run for the school board" against the Ethnic Studies Program.

On the other hand, Horne has championed the importance of his own ethnic and cultural legacy in teaching education and history:

I am the only Jewish person ever elected to statewide office in the history of Arizona.

What does being Jewish have to do with being the elected state superintendent of schools?

It is pretty well known that I have brought a renewed emphasis on academics and rigor to education in Arizona. There is a long cultural tradition in Judaism of valuing scholarship. Max Dimont, in his book "Jews, God and History," tells a wonderful narrative of this long tradition. As long ago as the first century C.E., Jewish pregnant women would stand in the front yard of a scholar, hoping the fetus would absorb some scholarship through the air.

I have put a lot of emphasis on having students learn more history.

Strangely enough, Horne resigned from the Arizona Anti-Defamation League when the organization concluded the Ethnic Studies Program "has so obviously resuscitated the desire to learn in so many students." Instead, Horne has declared that studying Mexican American history "promotes resentment" in the TUSD district, where 60 percent of the students have a Mexican-American heritage and ancestry.

While misappropriating and taking excerpts from speeches by President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. out of context over the past several years, Horne still continues to promulgate concepts of "race" over ethnicity and cultural legacy.

It's too bad Pedicone, Horne and the Huppenthal (who attended the private Salpointe Catholic high school in Tucson, sent his own children to charter or private schools and has been a defiant advocate for home schooling and private school vouchers during a period of draconian education budget cuts), didn't attend the Ethnic Studies forum at the Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church on June 1st. Mexican-American Catholic pioneer Esteban Ochoa, as many rooted Tucsonans know, not only defied Bishop Salpointe in 1872 and served as chair of the first Committee on Public Education, but donated the land and considerable funds for the city's first public school. Hosted by interfaith clergy, the forum aired concerns of the community and critics, and allowed teachers and administrators to provide evidence on the effectiveness of the MAS program in changing the trajectory of drop-out rates and fostering higher student achievement.

As a follow up on Huppenthal's January announcement that he would "stress accountability" by issuing letter grades for school performances, the Ethnic Studies/MAS teachers effectively carried out Huppenthal's mandate and delivered their own report card on Pedicone's 2010-2011 school year last Friday. At a press conference, the teachers noted that Pedicone had failed to respond to nine letters--including a hand-delivered letter--seeking dialogue and clarification. The long-time Tucson educators gave Pedicone, who has only been in office for six months, an "F" for areas of honesty, genuineness, connection to community, leadership and overall performance. In calling for Pedicone's resignation, they concluded:

"Supt. Pedicone has proven to lack the courage, skills or abilities to lead TUSD in a critical time, one when the challenges are at an unprecedented number. He divides our community when we need unity, lies when we need honesty, and uses deception to hide his true intentions."

When Huppenthal drops his latest bombshell around the state's audit results of Ethnic Studies this week, it will be interesting to see what grade the teachers -- and Tucson officials, and concerned community members and educators across the state and nation -- give the state superintendent.

More importantly, the state and nation will be watching to see if TUSD superintendent Pedicone will keep his one-time promise to defend and fight for his district's hugely successful Ethnic Studies/MAS Program "to the end" and join the teachers' federal suit on the unconstitutionality of the law -- or acquiesce to Huppenthal's extremist measures.

Jeff Biggers

Jeff Biggers is the author of The United States of Appalachia, and more recently, Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland (The Nation/Basic Books). Follow him on twitter: @JeffRBiggers

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