Behind the Battle Over Mexican-American Studies in Public Schools

(Bloomberg) -- A federal judge is set to decide the fate of an Arizona state law that forced Tucson’s majority-Latino school district to shut down an influential Mexican-American studies program credited with boosting Latino students’ grades and graduation rates.

Judge Wallace Tashima is expected to rule in the coming weeks on whether the 2010 law, which let the state pull funding from any district that offered classes designed for students of a particular ethnic group, is discriminatory or violates students’ constitutional rights.

The legislation was drafted by Arizona’s then-schools chief, who had earlier called for ending Tucson’s program. He and his successor say it stoked racial resentment and showed negligible success in improving student achievement; the former students suing say studies have shown otherwise.

“The traditional way of doing things has failed our community for generations,” says Curtis Acosta, a former literature teacher in Tucson. “Maybe it’s time to try something else.”

In the 15 years since its inception, Tucson’s program has been used as a model by school districts in California and Texas, and Acosta has begun a company that works with school districts in other states seeking to replicate its success.

The popularity of the approach reflects growing national interest in what’s known as culturally responsive pedagogy, based on the idea that students learn best when they’re taught in a way that’s relevant to their own lives. Hip-hop lyrics, for instance, can prompt discussions of themes of “machismo, misogyny, and greed,” explains Acosta, and “then how those themes can also be found in great works of literature. We’re building a gateway, making sure students can see themselves in the curriculum.”

The majority-Latino Tucson school district, which serves 46,000 students, started its program in 1998, then revamped it in 2002 in an effort to close an achievement gap as mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act. At the time, only 59 percent of Arizona’s Latino students were graduating from high school, compared with 79 percent of their white peers. (That gap is hardly unusual. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, just 67 percent of Hispanic adults have graduated, while 93 percent of whites have.)

“I’d tell the students, ‘I can predict right now, nationwide, what your academic outcomes are going to look like based on ethnicity or race or gender. Why am I able to do that?’ ” says the program’s co-creator Augustine Romero, who is now principal of Pueblo Magnet High School. “We talk about it from a sociological standpoint.”

In 2002, the program consisted of a single course on social justice at one school, but the program was soon expanded to include literature and history classes at multiple schools. By 2010, about 1,600 students, 90 percent of them Latino, were taking Mexican-American studies classes each year. They read works by William Shakespeare and the novelist Junot Diaz. Portraits of Che Guevara and United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta hung in some classrooms.

But the program came under criticism in 2006 when Huerta, in a lecture to students at Tucson High Magnet School, remarked “Republicans hate Latinos” while discussing anti-immigration bills that state lawmakers had recently passed. “I was getting calls from people saying, ‘You need to stop these controversial speeches,’ ” says Tom Horne, a Republican and then Arizona’s schools chief. He sent his deputy, Margaret Garcia Dugan, to give a speech of her own; about 70 students protested.

Behind the Battle Over Mexican-American Studies in Public Schools

The next year, Horne called for eliminating Tucson’s program, but at the time it wasn’t breaking any laws. In 2010 the state passed a law, crafted by Horne, that outlawed any public school classes that promoted ethnic solidarity or were designed for a specific ethnic group. (The law also banned classes that promoted “the overthrow of the U.S. government,” something Horne claimed students in Tucson’s program had been taught. The plaintiffs disputed this.)

Horne’s agency then found Tucson’s program in violation of this new law. Soon after, his successor, John Huppenthal—Horne had just become attorney general—commissioned an audit of it. The school district, which stood to lose about $15 million, dismantled the program, and a group of Tucson’s former students and teachers sued over the law, claiming it violated their constitutional rights.

The case has spent several years winding its way through the courts. In 2015 an appeals court largely upheld the 2010 law, rejecting some of the plaintiffs’ claims, but sent it back to trial court to determine whether it had been passed with discriminatory intent. Last month’s trial focused on whether Tucson’s Mexican-American studies program was a success and whether it inflamed racial resentments.

Following the audit the state commissioned in 2011, the resulting 120-page report found the program’s students were “taught to be accepting of multiple ethnicities of people.” From 2005 to 2010, more than 91 percent of them had graduated, it found—higher than the school district’s overall average, which hovered in the mid-80s. The auditors recommended expanding the program.

Horne has dismissed the findings and suggested teachers tailored their classes to please auditors. “They were subjected to a Potemkin village,” he says. Huppenthal didnt respond to emails seeking comment. At trial, the state presented a four-page 2009 study by the then-deputy associate schools superintendent, who was working under Horne, that concluded students in the program showed no discernible improvement over Latino students statewide.

That wasn’t the finding of a 2014 analysis by the University of Arizona, commissioned separately by a federal judge in connection with a long-standing, statewide school-desegregation order. That analysis of test scores, graduation rates, and grade-point averages for four years’ worth of students in Tucson’s program found that while students tended to enter the program with below-average GPAs and test scores, they often outperformed their peers by the end of high school. Their test scores rose and their participation in the program boosted their chances of graduating by an average of 10 percent.

“It was extremely surprising,” says Nolan Cabrera, an education policy professor at the University of Arizona who co-authored the study. “These students had some of the lowest GPAs, something like 2.2 their freshman year—then at the end, they ended up with some of the highest graduation rates.”

Stanford University researchers came to similar conclusions about a program in San Francisco that was loosely based on Tucson’s. Their 2010 study found that attendance rates for students enrolled in ethnic studies classes rose by more than 20 percent and that their GPAs improved an average of 1.4 points.

Those kinds of results have prompted other school districts to take up the model. California’s El Rancho Unified School District, a 98 percent Latino district near Los Angeles, made ethnic studies a graduation requirement in 2014. Acosta’s company has also worked with schools in Connecticut, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington in their efforts to develop similar programs.

Behind the Battle Over Mexican-American Studies in Public Schools

Today, the Tucson district offers courses that incorporate Mexican-American history and culture—courses the state’s current schools chief, Diane Douglas, has found comply with state law, although her office still monitors their curriculum. But should the plaintiffs win the lawsuit, parts of Tucson’s original program could in theory be revived, or its replacement expanded.

Either way, Acosta considers its influence testament to its success. “I did learn one thing from all of this,” he says. “When I talk to school districts who’re looking to start their own program, I tell them: I better meet with your superintendent first.”

To contact the author of this story: Claire Suddath in New York at