Arizona's ethnic studies law sets vague limits on curriculum content and gives arbitrary enforcement power to one official, the state schools superintendent. I support the effort to repeal this law, and TUSD has appealed the previous state superintendent's interpretation of its provisions.
Nonetheless, and setting aside disagreements over the legality of TUSD's programs, I think that TUSD should reorganize its efforts in ethnic studies. This could extend and deepen the programs' benefits to all students.
The board as a whole has not adopted this view; so I write as only one member and not as the board's representative.
Among TUSD's four ethnic studies programs, only the Mexican American Studies (MAS) program actually focuses on offering "ethnic studies" courses. The others emphasize extracurricular activities and helping individual students. TUSD recently decided to change their titles accordingly, from Native American Studies to Native American Student Services, for example.
The MAS program could help more students by providing, like its three sister programs, academic support for individual students. This should receive at least as much emphasis as teaching the MAS courses. Most of TUSD's Mexican-American students never take those courses.
The program should broaden its focus to all of TUSD's Hispanic students, including students of Central and South American origin. The broader program could be called Hispanic Student Services.
TUSD should support the expanded Hispanic program with more funding. The district currently spends more money on African American Studies than on Mexican American Studies, though it has many more Mexican-American students.
TUSD should reduce administrative overhead across all four ethnic studies departments to get more resources directly into academic support. Those support programs should also be held accountable for improving students' academic performance.
I strongly endorse the MAS program's traditional goal of providing supplemental curriculum in Mexican-American history and culture, but we should change the current practice of delivering this curriculum only through the MAS courses. The students who take those courses are disproportionately Mexican-American. The much larger number of TUSD students who never take MAS courses ironically include many of those who would benefit most from learning more about the Mexican-American experience.
A related issue is that the MAS courses, which students currently use as substitutes for traditional core courses in English and Social Studies, sometimes appear to overcompensate for the gaps in the traditional courses. This can create other gaps. For example, students who rely on the MAS courses to satisfy the state's social-studies requirement may learn too little about important parts of U.S. history.
To address these issues, I propose two more changes.
The MAS courses should be offered as pure electives: they should not substitute for the traditional core courses taught by the regular high school faculty. Freed from the obligation to cover the core material, the MAS courses can become deeper and more focused.
The district's staff, including staff workers from all four current ethnic studies programs, should create curriculum which can be incorporated throughout TUSD's social-studies core courses. This curriculum would make all students aware of the unique role and contributions of our Mexican-American, Native American and other ethnic communities - especially in our region.
This supplemental curriculum should not be window dressing, which is introduced and quickly forgotten. It should become an integral and continually reviewed component of TUSD's post-unitary (desegregation) plan.
To address the concern that some MAS teachers promote a sharp political agenda, my suggestion is that the TUSD board strengthen its commitment to its longstanding policy that requires that sensitive subjects be taught in "an objective and impartial manner." It is impractical to define or require absolute objectivity, but the district's staff should devise procedures to ensure a reasonable degree of political balance.
These actions would expose more students to more interesting courses, which would increase their appreciation for others' cultures and their capacity to consider and evaluate opposing viewpoints. They would also boost TUSD's efforts to improve minority students' achievement.
Mark Stegeman is president of the Tucson Unified School District Governing Board. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org