Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

TUSD has greater problems to solve than Mexican American Studies

Is Tucson Unified School District ungovernable? Last week’s debacle of a board meeting sure makes it look that way.

TUSD has stumbled from one crisis to another over the past 30 years with only brief periods of stability. While students taking over a board meeting was a unique event, raucous, riotous TUSD board meetings are nothing new.

In the 1980s student violence and teacher labor unrest plagued the district, as did implementing court-ordered desegregation. In the 1990s, voter rejection of a budget override, growth in the suburbs and school decay in the city core created budget crises, in the 2000s declining student enrollment, declining state support for public education and student accountability and school labeling regimes gave the district fits.

Now it’s a debate over how and what some students are taught about U.S. and Mexican history. Considering the sea of troubles the district is in, reforming Mexican American Studies is the least of the district’s worries.

There have been five superintendents in the 12 years since a blue ribbon panel proposed the MAS program as a way to curtail the increasing Latino student dropout rate in TUSD. George Garcia created MAS and Stan Paz implemented it after he became superintendent in 2000.

Paz was supposed to restore TUSD to its glory days when it was the best school district in the state. He managed to irritate everyone and left in 2004 right before the board intended to ask him to leave. Roger Pfeuffer then spent four years as interim superintendent. He was primarily tasked with creating a plan to reduce the number of district schools but the board rejected his plan after thousands of people yelled at the board at community forums.

The board hired wunderkind Elizabeth Celania-Fagen in 2008 to right TUSD’s sinking ship, but she fled to Colorado two years later taking several top district officials with her.

Now John Pedicone is the new savior. He did for Flowing Wells what few people thought possible in a public school district with high rates of poverty – he made it excel.

The hope is that he’ll do the same for TUSD.

But TUSD ain’t no Flowing Wells. When Garcia retired in 1999, TUSD enrollment peaked at 64,000 students. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the state passed several education reform measures that included charter schools, allowing inter-district attendance and a quasi-voucher system cloaked as tax credits.

As a result, disaffected TUSD parents who are mostly white and affluent have voted with their feet, leaving for suburban districts and charter and private schools. Today, TUSD’s enrollment is slightly more than 53,000 and continuing to fall.

Once a diverse student body both racially and economically, TUSD is now an oxymoronic minority majority district, mostly Latino, with roughly three out of five students coming from families who qualify for federal school meal assistance, a benchmark of poverty.

About 20 percent of its schools are under the state’s “corrective action” thumb due to low test scores and other factors and another 10 to 15 percent are in danger of coming under the state’s thumb. It has too many schools and too few teachers.

Meanwhile, the Republican Legislature is doing every thing it can to dismantle public education while blaming schools and teachers for failing to thrive under the state’s destructive policies.

So the district has far greater problems than whether a handful of Latino students are taught that Che Guevera was good guy and it’s an open question whether one superintendent and a volunteer school board have the experience, resolve and resources to solve them.

It’s a good bet that Pedicone will want to make other changes to how the district is governed that are sure to rouse various rabbles. Those will be fights for the district’s future, not one small program affecting just a few students.

Board President Mark Stegeman would be wise to drop his effort to reform MAS and instead allow the state’s action against the district run its course.

Let the state be the MAS boogeyman, not the TUSD board and superintendent.

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