TUCSON (CN) - Arizona's new head of public schools does not want to shut down ethnic studies classes, Tucson's school chief said, signaling a new era in the contentious case headed to the 9th Circuit next week.
Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) Superintendent H.T. Sanchez said he met with Diane Douglas, Arizona's new superintendent of public instruction, for about 90 minutes Wednesday and came out of the conversation feeling optimistic.
"I don't feel that the state agency wants to shut down our ethnic studies programs but really wants to take a look at how we can work together to address any concerns," Sanchez said during a Wednesday evening press conference.
Douglas took office on Monday, just two days after outgoing Superintendent John Huppenthal, on his last day on the job, added fuel to the state's battle over whether and how ethnic-studies classes should be taught in public schools.
Huppenthal had been one of the architects of the Arizona ban on classes that, among other things, "advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals."
A Jan. 2 message from his office announces that TUSD received a departing notice of noncompliance with that law over its Mexican-American and African-American history classes. Liability would cost the district 10 percent of its state funding.
In an announcement Thursday, however, Douglas said she supports Huppenthal's findings but also that she is "satisfied with the curricula for ethnic studies developed by TUSD at the district level and supports the program."
The statement from the Arizona DOE goes on to note that it has "documented extensive evidence that the curricula have not been properly implemented in the classroom and lesson plans and materials do not reflect the new curricula."
"These deviations from the curricula are in violation of the state law," it added.
Douglas, a Republican, said that TUSD has 60 days to correct the violations, and that she will assist the district in doing so.
"It is important to correct the misunderstanding that ADE is opposed to ethnic studies," Douglas said in the statement. "If any child educated in Arizona is not exposed to the suffering, trials and triumphs of all ethnic groups who have contributed to our state's rich cultural mix, then we are failing to teach accurate history."
The ethnic-studies law, which the Arizona Legislature approved in 2010 after it had failed to pass twice before, is the subject of a lawsuit set to go before a three-judge appeals panel in San Francisco on Monday.
It prohibits public schools in Arizona from offering classes from an ethnic perspective that "promote overthrowing the U.S. government"; "promote resentment towards a race or class of people"; or "advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals."
The students challenging the law claim it was enacted primarily as a means to kill TUSD's Mexican-American Studies Program (MAS), a curriculum taught since 1998 that studies show has improved previously poor graduation rates among the district's Mexican-American students.
Armed with the new law, state officials and an administrative law judge found TUSD's program to be in violation, and the district's governing board agreed in 2011 to cancel the Mexican-American Studies classes rather than risk losing state funding.
Some Mexican-American Studies and African-American Studies courses have since returned to TUSD, however, as part of the district's efforts to comply with a long-running desegregation lawsuit. It was those classes that inspired Huppenthal's final-day finding of noncompliance last week.
U.S. District Judge A. Wallace Tashima ruled for the state on most of the students' court challenges to the law in 2013, citing "the considerable deference that federal courts owe to the state's authority to regulate public school education."
Tashima found that a section of the law, barring classes "designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group," was overbroad and ambiguous, but otherwise ruled that the ban was not intended to be discriminatory.
Both parties have filed their appellate briefs on the ruling with the 9th Circuit, ahead of Monday's hearing in San Francisco.
"The promise of MAS was taken away by elected officials who did not understand the program, were threatened by the curriculum, and were openly fearful of Arizona's growing Mexican and Mexican American population," the plaintiffs wrote. "Their response was A.R.S. § 15-112, a vague and overbroad state law based upon racial bias and fears that gave the Arizona State Superintendent of Public Instruction and the Arizona State Board of Education arbitrary and discretionary enforcement power. Essentially, the law allowed state officials to force assimilation into a rigid orthodoxy that returned every TUSD Mexican American student to the same morass that existed before MAS."
Arizona meanwhile says TUSD's previous Mexican-American Studies program "promoted race-based resentment bordering on hatred among public school students," and that the law is meant only to "prohibit public district and charter schools from offering courses or classes that inculcate class- and race-based resentment within school children."
"Enacting such statutes falls well within the state's plenary authority over its curriculum," the state's brief says. "To the extent that the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment protects a student's right to receive information, that right is not implicated by a state statute that limits curricula to pursue a goal of reducing racism."
The hearing is set for Monday, Jan. 12, at 9:30 a.m., in San Francisco's James R. Browning U.S. Courthouse.