Tucson is a community in turmoil. It has been tied in knots for more than a year over the issue of how best to educate its children in a world of shrinking resources and high poverty.
Propagandists—both pro and con—have embroiled locals in continuous debate over the merits of the Mexican American Studies (MAS) program in the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD). Fanning the flames of hatred and hyperbole, supporters and detractors have distributed MAS facts and myths nationwide through blogs, newspapers, public appearances, radio broadcasts, e-mail blasts, and social media. Charges of racism and white privilege are hurled at those who ask for program evaluation data or information on course content; from the right, MAS instructors are called “bullies” and “thugs” who are indoctrinating children with Marxism and hatred.
On January 10, 2012, rather than face a $15 million fine, the TUSD Governing Board voted to not fight the state’s legal ruling against the MAS program. MAS was found to be in violation of state law banning any school curriculum that promotes resentment against a race or class of people, is designed primarily for one ethnic group, and advocates for ethnic solidarity, a law that was created by former Superintendent of Public Instruction and current state Attorney General Tom Horne specifically to bring down the MAS program.
Contrary to what you may read in other blog posts, in Save Ethnic Studies e-mail blasts or on facebook, this law did not ban Ethnic Studies and it didn’t eliminate Mexican American Studies in other school districts (like Sunnyside). The law (which I hope will be found to be unconstitutional) was finely targeted by Horne and the Arizona Legislature to take down the MAS program in TUSD.
Although MAS was created to improve dropout rates among Latino students and may, in fact, do that at least among low income students (see graphics below), the program had been serving fewer than 1 percent of the 32,000 Latinos enrolled in TUSD. Since school year 2000-01, MAS has served 8656 Latino students and 1107 students of other ethnicities, according to data provided by the TUSD Governing Board. Between fall 2000 and fall 2010, Latino enrollment in MAS ranged from 153 to 1002 per semester, with an average of 412 students taking at least one MAS class per semester. During this same time period, the percentage of Latino students enrolled in TUSD increased as white students left the inner city district. In 1996-97, 45.4 percent of TUSD students were white, and 41.8 percent were Latino. In 2010-11, the breakdown had shifted to 28.9 percent white and 56.2 percent Latino.
What has MAS in its current format done for the thousands of Latinos in TUSD who are not taking their classes?
What about the Latinos in TUSD who are not Mexican American? Are they being served?
Does TUSD need another Blue Ribbon Panel like the one that created MAS in 1999? My personal opinion is: YES. Pasting some Mexican American information and history into other classes won’t cut it. For several reasons fighting to keep the MAS status quo also doesn’t cut it:
1) The MAS reach was too small to make a significant impact on overall graduation rates (one of the original goals);
2) Non-Mexican Latinos, refugees, and other ethnic minorities are not being served by the current Ethnic Studies structure (ie, Mexican-American Studies, African American Studies, Native American Studies, and Pan-Asian Studies);
3) There is conflicting evaluation data.
4) Gender has been ignored in many MAS and TUSD academic achievement analyses. (Graduation rates and academic achievement among boys in the US has plummeted and continues to decline. This is a trend that will have serious negative consequences on the fabric on American society if left unaddressed.)
Yes, there are many, many anecdotal stories from individual students about the value of the MAS classes. Let’s build on the positive aspects of MAS– the impact on low-income students (see graphics below), the self-esteem-building, the small class sizes, and the high teacher involvement. No program is beyond improvement.
What can we as a community to do ensure a quality education for all public school students? Let’s stop the name-calling, stop the incendiary e-mail blasts, stop the hype, and come together– all of us.
On this anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, let’s make a commitment to start talking and start building a better future for all children, regardless of race, ethnicity, income, gender, or sexual orientation.
For some insight into MAS program evaluation and the challenges facing TUSD as it moves forward, check out the following data slides, which were prepared from data provided by TUSD.