RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Three years after it was banned by the state of Arizona, the Tucson Unified School District is resurrecting its Mexican-American Studies program. The courses are now known by a somewhat different name — culturally relevant classes - but they still hold the same potential for controversy, as NPR's Ted Robbins reports.
TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: TUSD - the Tucson Unified School District - will again offer ethnic studies classes when the school year begins in a couple of weeks.
(SOUNDBITE OF SCHOOL BOARD MEETING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Miss Foster.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Mr. Hicks.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Miss Grijalva.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Yes. Thank you. Item passes.
ROBBINS: The recent decision by the TUSD board was a whole lot less contentious than the decision to end Mexican-American Studies classes three years ago.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Our education's under attack. What do we do? Fight back.
ROBBINS: Back in 2010, Tucson streets were filled with protestors. It was a tense time. A month earlier the Republican-controlled Arizona legislature had passed the anti-illegal immigrant law known as SB-1070. Then legislators passed another law banning the Mexican-American studies classes.
The state had decided the classes promoted racism and classism toward Anglos, advocated ethnic solidarity, and suggested the overthrow of the government. Kim Dominguez was one of the protestors and a graduate of the program. She says she's hopeful about the new classes.
KIM DOMINGUEZ: I think the new classes have the potential to provide the same kind of services and support that Mexican-American studies provided.
ROBBINS: Of course Kim Dominguez never thought there was a problem. She is now an Arizona college student attending a community organizing conference for Chicanas in Ohio.
DOMINGUEZ: I wouldn't be here right now if it was not for Mexican-American studies. It totally transformed my life and opened me up to new possibilities.
ROBBINS: The classes were part of a decades-old desegregation case aimed at providing equal education. Earlier this year, a federal court ordered the district to offer the Mexican-American high school classes once more, as well as African-American classes. So TUSD Superintendent H.T. Sanchez says there's little choice.
H.T. SANCHEZ: We want a successful course that meets our federal desegregation court order and doesn't violate state law. It's a very narrow path.
ROBBINS: It looks like a rocky path again. The district asked the state to look at the new classes. The state said they're unacceptable. Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal agrees that the history of racial injustice needs to be taught, but he says the Tucson curriculum is still inappropriate.
JOHN HUPPENTHAL: Do you cover those injustices in a way in which we say these are profound things that we should be aware of and we have to work in this country to make this country a better place? Or do you use those injustices to create racial division and to use those injustices to create hatred?
ROBBINS: Republican Huppenthal wouldn't be more specific about his objections. The new curriculum is still being worked out, including which books teachers will use. That was a major source of contention earlier. Still, the state says the classes don't meet core educational standards. TUSD Superintendent Sanchez says he's yet to see those standards.
SANCHEZ: I asked, can you give me a copy of a document that has, as a good example, incorporated those core standards, and one doesn't exist. There wasn't one he could put his hands on and hand me.
ROBBINS: It sometimes sounds as if state and local officials are talking past each other. Tucson needs to offer ethnic studies to satisfy a federal mandate, yet Arizona officials say the content is inappropriate. The issue could be resolved by negotiating but it could just as easily end up in court or in the streets again. Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.
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