Ted Simons: The state superintendent of public instruction, John Huppenthal, says that the Tucson unified school district is in violation of a new state law on ethnic studies programs. In a moment, we'll talk to a Tucson school district official, but first, here's what superintendent Huppenthal had to say about the violations when he appeared on "Horizon" last week.
John Huppenthal: We had to pull samples of what was actually done in the class and saw myriad violations of 15-12 in those materials. The website specifically outlines this is for a particular ethnicity. There were a variety of materials that outlined that and when we checked enrollment, in the classrooms, there's 90% Latino and the overall population is at 60%. Explicitly talking about in terms of how it's cast, being from one viewpoint and talking about it in terms of oppression and Latinos by whites, the types of references in that context. Not, you know, improper -- just improper phraseology, how you bring that out, we think, that's where the violation took place.
Ted Simons: Here to tell us more about the ethnic studies program in question is Mark Stegeman, president of the Tucson Unified School District Governing Board. Thank you for appearing tonight on "Horizon."
Mark Stegeman: It's my pleasure. Thank you.
Ted Simons: Ok. The superintendent says it violates state law. What say you?
Mark Stegeman: The governing board has repeatedly taken the position we're not in violation of state law and I'm not inclined to say anything to undercut that position.
Ted Simons: The superintendent says it promotes resentment, promotes ethnic solidarity and is designed for a particular ethnic group - all three subsets mentioned specifically in statute. Again, without going too deeply on each individual case, is there resentment; is there a specific course design for a specific ethnic group? Is it designed for that particular ethnic group?
Mark Stegeman: The problem account statute, the language is vague, what is resentment, history is full of people treating each other badly, and when you teach about that, you could say teaching any history is going to create some resentment. It's hard to know where the line is drawn. I think this course sequence was aimed a little bit at Latinos, but school districts all over the country have African American studies courses aimed a little bit at African Americans and it's hard to tell exactly where the line should be drawn.
Ted Simons: When we had the superintendent on the program, he repeatedly mentioned a failure for proper oversight for the program but the board never reviewed or approved material, violated your own policy on that particular aspect of review and approval. Talk to us about that and is this as painted -- sounds like it's a rogue program down there. What's going on?
Mark Stegeman: I think the superintendent is correct. There has been a lack of oversight. The board voted in 1998 to create a program of this kind, but after that, the courses never came back for approval for the board and there was no systematic review and I think -- of course, and that does not say the program is bad in any way, but I think there was a lack of oversight and maybe a failure to conform exactly to what policy and statute had in mind.
Ted Simons: I was going to say lack of oversight often leads to things getting out of control and critics of the program say it's way out of control. I use the word "rogue" once again. Do they have a point there?
Mark Stegeman: I think that TUSD has had management problems for a long time and there are many programs and departments that have been running on their own without much oversight. I'm not sure I would use the word "rogue" but the word "thiefdom" is sometimes used. And this program might be one of those thiefdoms. Which again does not imply anything wrong is happening but operating autonomously.
Ted Simons: How did that happen? How did they got to operate so autonomously?
Mark Stegeman: I think that is the result of decisions by a sequence of governing boards and superintendents that for one reason or another did not exercise oversight.
Ted Simons: The superintendent mentioned a website that outlines programs for specific ethnicity and mentioned 90% of the classrooms are Latino, overall population of this district is 60%, something along those lines. Are those concerns enough to say something has to change?
Mark Stegeman: I do not know how to answer the legal aspect of this because that depends on how you interpret the law and I'm not a lawyer. There's no precedent for interpreting this law. I think that it's all right, if you don't have exactly the same ethnic composition in every class. That's natural. I think it might be better, and this is something I've advocated, to fold our course sequences together to reduce that self-segregation that occurs. But that's my personal opinion. Not necessarily of the whole board.
Ted Simons: How did that go over?
Mark Stegeman: Not well received by the supporters of the program, for sure. Rather spectacularly not well received. [Laughter]
Ted Simons: There have been raucous meetings down there. it sounds that from up here, from Phoenix area- we read about what's happening this Tucson, my goodness, things are volatile concerning this particular program.
Mark Stegeman: I think my goodness were some of the things we were saying in the back room, and maybe stronger than that as the situation develops at the meeting. The rhetoric on this program has been very polarized by people who hate it and the people who support is it and one thing I was trying to do was stake out a middle ground and add a little depth or nuance to the rhetoric. I think I was marginally successful but not extremely successful in that.
Ted Simons: When the superintendent was here, he talked about materials at his office and didn't mention the audit report. We'll get to this audit report in a minute. But he mentioned materials were proselytized instead of teaching history. And you know, historical injustice is ok to talk about but not to have it as the major theme, the major focus. Especially when one group is seen as the oppressor and the other oppressed. Are those valid criticisms of this program?
Mark Stegeman: I teach at the university the Arizona, I teach economics and try to maintain careful balance between conservative and liberal viewpoints. I think this program has a political orientation, which is left leaning, and as a educator, this has bothered me a little bit. Again, that's my viewpoint, not necessarily the whole board and that does not in any way mean that I'm suggesting we're violating the law, which has particular rules in it, but leaving the law aside, I've been concerned that the program has a little too much left bias and I say that as a democrat.
Ted Simons: When you say that, leaving the law aside, that seems like a lot has seeped into the opinion of the superintendent, which means your district is facing a colossal loss of funding. How do you get folks to realize you've got 60 days to figure this out? Or else a lot of money goes away. What is it? Something like 10-15 millions or somewhere along those lines?
Mark Stegeman: Yeah. Something along that line.
Ted Simons: 15 million? That’s a lot of money.
Mark Stegeman: Yeah, it’s a lot.
Ted Simons: How do you convince folks maybe it's time to look again? It’s a time to compromise? Sounds like a lot of compromise isn't going on right now.
Mark Stegeman: I don't want to get in front of the board when it's well known they have different viewpoints. I would be surprised if a majority of the board wants to accept that cut and I think a majority will probably find ways to avoid that cut. But we'll cross that bridge when we come to and I don't want to speak for others.
Ted Simons: You have ideas from changing the course from core courses to elective, as part of a compromise in the past. That didn't go over well either?
Mark Stegeman: That was part of a large proposal with 10 parts and that part was one sentence, and all of the attention went on one sentence, which was unfortunate. I felt the program could be improved. All of our ethnic studies programs could be approved and I was trying to put forward a program that would preserve substantially and make improvements pan maybe mitigate the collision we were going to have with the state but, no, that was not well received.
Ted Simons: The report commissioned by the department of education superintendent raised a lot of questions, because the report seems to suggest that the program's doing fine, and yet the report was commissioned by a superintendent who now says the program is not doing fine and you have 60 days to figure it out. What do you make of this?
Mark Stegeman: I think the report put the superintendent in a politically awkward position. Personally, if there's important evidence in any investigation, some important evidence that turns off after your first pass at investigating, it's reasonable it bring that in. I don't know in this case if what they found after is important evidence but I don't think other evidence should be ruled out.
Ted Simons: There was a concern and criticism regarding the report in the sense a lot of folks are trying to audit and figure out what's going on. They did not get cooperation from teachers and from the program itself. And they were -- they only had limited information and that may be one of the reasons why, according to one side, that the report didn't seem to be all that critical. How much cooperation was there with auditors?
Mark Stegeman: There was, in the sense they were allowed to go into classrooms whenever they wanted to. There was less cooperation in interviews or providing materials and I think -- I wish there had been more cooperation. I think the program would be in a stronger position if there had. I think some of the teachers were advised by counsel because of the lawsuit they're engaged in not to cooperate and I can respect that, but for the district, it was unfortunate.
Ted Simons: What's going to change here? What can be changed?
Mark Stegeman: I think that we -- the board has voted to go through a hearing process and one goal of that is to figure out what we need to do to avoid that 10% cut.
Ted Simons: It's got to be discouraging to think this one program which affects a relatively small proportion of students down there is threatening a lot of money and resources.
Mark Stegeman: About 650 students took one of these courses last year and we have a district of 53,000, so it's a bit out of proportion.
Ted Simons: Thank you for coming and answering questions for us.
Mark Stegeman: It's my pleasure. Thank you.