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Ethnic Studies Could Return to Tucson in Desegregation Plan

Mexican-American studies is poised for a comeback in Tucson. After a years-long, tumultuous fight that came to a head earlier this year when local school officials pulled the plug on the program, a leading civil rights group today announced that the ethnic studies courses will not only return to the school district, but could be expanded.

This turn of events stems from a much broader plan to settle a nearly four-decades-old desegregation lawsuit against Tucson Unified that must still be approved by the federal judge overseeing the case. The lawsuit involves both plaintiffs who are Latino and African American. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, which represents Latino students, along with representatives of African-American students who are also plaintiffs in the suit, joined the Tucson school district and the U.S. Department of Justice in filing the desegregation plan.

A court-appointed special master, Willis Hawley, oversaw the plan's development. This is the second time in the lawsuit's history that a final settlement has been attempted. An earlier effort was appealed by the plaintiffs.

The new plan—intended to bring "unitary status" to Tucson Unified—involves numerous, highly prescribed components related to student assignment, transportation, enhancing the racial and ethnic diversity of its workforce, access to rigorous curriculum and programs, family and community engagement, dropout prevention, and discipline practices.

In a call with reporters on Monday, MALDEF lawyer Nancy Ramirez particularly highlighted the plan's restoration of the popular, yet politically charged Mexican-American studies program. In the draft settlement, the district would not only bring the program back to its high schools, but it would have to expand the course offerings to middle schools by 2014 and propose plans to bring "culturally relevant curricula" to students in the earlier grades.

"This is a critical strategy for closing the achievement gap for Latino students," Ms. Ramirez said.

It was not even a year ago that the Tucson school board shuttered the popular Mexican-American studies program because they argued it was their only choice to avoid losing nearly $15 million in state funding for the 60,000-student district. Arizona's state schools chief, John Huppenthal, had threatened to withhold the funds because he said the courses violated a new state law that prohibits public schools from offering courses that are designed for a particular ethnic group, advocate ethnic solidarity, or promote resentment toward a race or group of people.

Tom Horne, the Arizona attorney general—a former state schools chief and one of the most vocal opponents to Tucson's Mexican-American studies program—has until later this month to formally object to the plan.

Also Monday, researchers at the University of Arizona released a new study that found a "consistent and positive" relationship between students' participation in the Mexican-American studies program and his or her academic performance. The study was done at the request of the court's special master.

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