TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) - Attempts to outlaw a popular Mexican-American studies program in Tucson's largest school district are racist, unfairly target Latinos and would put local teachers out of work, a lawyer argued in federal court Wednesday.
Arizona's Republican-led Legislature passed the law last year with backing from former school's chief Tom Horne, now state attorney general. It prohibits public and charter schools in the state from offering classes that "promote the overthrow of the United States government, promote resentment toward a race or class of people, are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group, and advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals."
Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal vowed in his campaign for state office last year to get rid of Tucson Unified School District's Mexican Mexican-American studies program. He declared the program to be in violation of the law earlier this year, despite an outside consulting group's findings to the contrary.
Two students and 11 teachers and students filed suit to enjoin the law and keep the 12-year-old program intact. Their attorney Richard Martinez said Wednesday that Huppenthal was "playing race politics."
Tucson Unified School District, which is not a party to the teachers' lawsuit, filed an appeal, and an administrative law judge is expected to rule by Jan. 5. If the district's appeals fail, and it chooses to keep the program, it will lose $1 million to $3 million a month in state funding.
U.S. District Judge A. Wallace Tashima took a bit of the air out of the challengers' case early in the packed hearing Wednesday afternoon when he questioned whether the teachers and students have standing to sue.
"I think they have an uphill road on standing," the judge said, prefiguring Assistant Attorney General Kevin Ray's primary argument.
Ray, representing Huppenthal on the motion to dismiss the case, said that the teachers and students don't have standing in the case because they can't show that they have been injured. He said that the statute is neutral and that it applies only to school districts, not their employees. He said that plaintiffs "go through a great deal of exaggeration in their pleadings" and tend to see everything as being anti-Latino.
"You don't think the deprivation of an opportunity to study Mexican-American studies is an injury?" Judge Tashima asked, concentrating throughout the hearing on the claims of student-plaintiffs who want to register for the classes offered in the program next year. The teachers' claims, on the other hand, did not receive much airtime.
The superintendent's lawyer, Ray, said, "The Supreme Court is clear that the students don't have a constitutional right to dictate curriculum."
If the court grants standing, Ray added that it should hold the case until the administrative proceedings are complete.
"They are speculating as to the future impact of an adverse decision," Ray said. "It depends on future actions of a nonparty, TUSD."
But Martinez argued that the damage has, in a sense, already been done. Since both Horne and Huppenthal have vowed publicly to get rid of the program, the plaintiffs hold out little hope for the administrative appeal, he said.
"Tucson school district cannot be expected to maintain a program" after losing millions every month in state funding, he said.
Without an injunction the teachers would possibly lose their jobs and suffer harm to their professional reputations, Martinez argued further.
He said that the statute is racist and that its drafters "made race-conscious decisions in this statute."
Asked by the judge for an example, Martinez pointed out that the law allows classes on the Holocaust and contains other exceptions, but "specifically burdens Latinos."
"They are playing race politics in our state specific to this program," Martinez said.
There are about 800 students currently enrolled in TUSD's Mexican-American studies program. According to the plaintiffs' court filings, the program began in 1998 as part of an effort to "remedy the district's failure to educate Latino students."
Tashima said he would rule on the state's motion to dismiss and the plaintiffs' request for an injunction "as expeditiously as possible."
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