Conservative Republicans outside of the Tucson area no longer have to expend much energy trying to take down the school district which serves the children of the city they love to hate, the Democratic-leaning metropolitan area they think of as "The People's Republic of Tucson." They took a problem-ridden district and planted within it the bitter seeds of dissension and animosity. They helped create anti-district alliances among groups on the right and the left which previously had been at odds. Then they sat back and watched with satisfaction as forces in the school district and the community tear each other apart.
TUSD has long been a district with a reputation of poor management and poorer financial practices, and it couldn't hold onto its superintendents, shedding them almost as regularly as trees shed their autumn leaves. But for all that, the district has always had its share of strong schools, strong teachers and strong programs. Among its strengths was the Mexican American Studies program which had a national reputation for innovation and excellence. It served a portion of the Hispanic community, as well as some non-Hispanic community members, who wanted to give their children a representation of Mexican and Mexican-American history and culture different from the more mainstream depiction which disparaged them. A dedicated core of teachers and administrators worked diligently to create a curriculum and an ethos which instilled pride in students while it dispelled some of the negative stereotypes which are pervasive in the normal school curriculum and society at large, empowering students with knowledge of the positive aspects of their history and traditions and spotlighting ways society has conspired to keep them poor, powerless and self hating. The program was well known and respected in some parts of the Tucson community, and disliked in some others, but beyond those groups, it mostly flew under the radar. It was just one of many programs in the school district about which the general public had little knowledge.
Then, a golden opportunity to demonize MAS fell in the lap of the right wing scream machine. Three words spoken at a school assembly by Delores Huerta, an icon of the labor movement and the fight for Hispanic rights, were used to spark conservative outrage. "Republicans hate Latinos," Huerta said. The phrases and sentences surrounding those three words qualified them and made them less incendiary, but all anyone heard from her talk was, "Republicans hate Latinos." National right wing media seized on the words, and Arizona's conservative community latched onto them with a vicious glee. It was Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks saying she was "ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas" all over again. It was John Lennon saying the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. Unlike the Maines and Lennon episodes, Huerta's words didn't lead to record burnings, reminiscent of book burnings, cheered on by self righteous, cheering mobs, but they led to a reinvigorated wave of anti-brown agitation, fear and hatred.
And the words led to ambitious politicians seizing on the Mexican American Studies program to bolster their careers. Education superintendent Tom Horne drove from Phoenix to hold regular press conferences condemning the program outside the TUSD administration building. He hoped to ride the anti-MAS wave all the way into the governor's office. John Huppenthal mixed barely veiled anti-Hispanic rhetoric with a history-blind patriotic fervor and made them the centerpiece of his winning campaign to follow Horne as superintendent. And Senator Russell Pearce, father of SB 1070, pummeled the TUSD program in the legislature at every opportunity.
The legislature passed a law crafted to make the Mexican American Studies program illegal, and Governor Jan Brewer signed it. Superintendent Huppenthal declared that the program had to be dismantled. The reaction in Tucson was fierce. Supporters of MAS rallied together, held demonstrations, disrupted board meetings and did everything they could to fight against the destruction of the program they held dear. Forces opposing MAS fought their fight on internet sites, right wing radio and on the school board itself. The controversy received nationwide attention. Finally, with Huppenthal demanding TUSD dismantle the program or face a loss of ten percent of its state aid, the board voted 4-1 to dismantle MAS. Voting in the majority were current board members Mark Stegeman and Michael Hicks as well as Alexandre Sugiyama and Miguel Cuevas who are no longer on the board. Adelita Grijalva cast the sole vote against the move.
The most ardent supporters of MAS were furious with TUSD for giving in. They felt betrayed that the district's one outpost against the Anglo-dominated view of the Hispanic community, the program they cared about so deeply and fought for so ardently, was destroyed. They had fought long and hard against another instance of the anti-Hispanic establishment's efforts to keep them in their obedient, subservient place, and once again they were shot down. They kept the fight going by filing lawsuits and continuing to urge people in the district to work to reinstate the program. Anything less than a full-throated support of MAS, not just in the past but in the present and into the future, was seen by them as a betrayal.
Other supporters of the Mexican American Studies program decided they had to move on. They had been beaten by forces who had control of the legislature and the Arizona Department of Education. It was futile, they felt, to continue to mount a frontal assault on people who had the power of the purse, and even the power to arrest TUSD staff members who violated the anti-MAS state law. That attitude infuriated those who wanted to continue the battle. They saw their former allies as traitors surrendering to the enemy. In some ways, those who left the fight were worse than the people who originally mounted the conservative fight against MAS, because they were former friends abandoning their comrades who wanted to continue fighting, if not to the death, then to their last political breath, consequences to the district be damned. The fight should not be abandoned, no matter what damage it might cause the district to refuse to comply with the state's order.
Adelita Grijalva was among those viewed as a traitor who abandoned the cause. So were the two new board members, Cam Juarez and Kristel Foster, who had supported the fight to keep MAS and who replaced two board members who voted to dismantle the program. Grijalva, Juarez and Foster all fall into the progressive Democratic camp. Two are Hispanic and the third is fluent in Spanish and a program specialist in Language Acquisition in the Sunnyside School District. But for those who demanded that the fight continue, the three were viewed as enemies.
If the conservative war against Mexican American Studies hadn't been waged and won, there still would have been educational conflicts between the Tucson's more radical left, especially the Hispanic radical left, and the new board majority of Grijalva and the two recently elected board members. Some political rifts in the community are deep and long-standing. But they would have played out at a lower level, as they had before the MAS battles, with moments of unity and moments of disunity. But the conservative victory against the MAS program became a wedge driven between the two groups which made cooperation, a willingness to work together despite their differences, nearly impossible.
John Pedicone was TUSD superintendent during the MAS battles and its dismantling, and he, like so many other superintendents before him, decided to leave the district after a few years on the job. It was the newly reconstituted board's task to find someone to replace him. The majority picked H.T. Sanchez, someone who is like them in many ways. He's Hispanic, and he leans toward a progressive education model. Before the dismantling of MAS, his hiring would probably have been greeted with a shrug or at the most mild dissension by most members of the community who are to the left of the board majority. But Sanchez made it clear he wanted to pick up from where the district was and move on. He had no desire to refight the battles over the Mexican American Studies program. And that made him suspect—worse than suspect—to those who didn't think the MAS battles should be ended.
That was the moment, when Sanchez was being scrutinized by the community before he was hired, when the alliance between those on the left who wanted to keep fighting for the MAS program and those on the right who were its strongest opponents was formed. Local right wing radio talk show hosts and their compatriots on internet were all too happy to find any reason to stir up anti-TUSD controversy. For them, the worse the reputation of the district, the sooner the privatization of education would triumph over government-controlled public schools. So when they saw the growing animosity toward the TUSD establishment by the strongest supporters of MAS, they embraced the controversy. On the radio and on the internet, they blasted the process of choosing Sanchez, his history and some of his statements. Stegeman and Hicks, the two remaining board members who fought against MAS, chimed in as well, digging up every reason they could find to oppose Sanchez. And the people on the left who fought hardest for MAS against those on the right who opposed it joined with their recent enemies to fight a common enemy: the board majority and Sanchez.
And so it has been since then. It's never hard to find concerns about and complaints against something going on in TUSD. That's true with any large public institution and doubly true of a school district in an urban area with a large minority population. But those reasonable concerns are being shouted at ear-splitting volume by those on the left and right opposing the current TUSD establishment. Long invectives have been published, one after the other, screeds mixing genuine concerns and complaints with a level of vicious animosity, often personal, often exaggerated and wrong, which far exceeded the concerns being aired. It was like the right wing shouting "Benghazi!" at Hillary Clinton, and "Emails!" and "Clinton Foundation!"—unrelenting attacks with the volume turned up to eleven. Any new controversy, any new problem is aired with the same hyped-up hatred. The problem being revealed is secondary to the overriding message, "Throw 'em out!" It's a demonization that we've come to expect of the right going after the left—and the left going after the right—but when it comes to TUSD, it's coming from the two political ends working in combination to demonize a mutual enemy.
The latest controversy is over TUSD's spending, or not spending, of its Prop 301 funds. It's a very reasonable topic of discussion, since it involves the amount of money teachers receive, which is always too little in this state, but may have been less than it should have been for TUSD teachers. It would be valuable to have some dispassionate analysts weigh in to help us understand what's happened to those funds in the recent past and what's planned in the future. But once again, the screaming makes a reasonable discussion almost impossible (though the Star's Tim Steller is making an attempt, with some success). The people fighting hardest against Sanchez and the board majority are using the controversy to yell, "Throw 'em out!" while the district administration and the three members of the board under attack are adopting a defensive stance, knowing any admission that the money wasn't distributed properly will be greeted by shouts of "Guilty! String 'em up!"
Let's not forget to give our state's Republican leadership some credit for this most recent controversy. When Prop 301 was passed, it was an excellent example of a funded mandate. The voters said, we want to raise the compensation for teachers, and we're going to pay six-tenths of a cent in sales tax to fund it. And to make sure those funds remained available to spend on teachers, the proposition mandated that the legislature could not cut its education budget. Then, starting in 2009, the Republican-led legislature illegally cut the education budget. According to national studies looking at education cuts after the 2008 recession, Arizona, already near the bottom of per student funding, cut the largest percentage of education funding of any state in the nation. Our already inadequately funded schools were beggared still further, illegally. Though the Prop 301 funds kept flowing, their purpose became, in essence, an unfunded mandate. It's highly unlikely TUSD would be dealing with the controversy about the way it used those funds at such a high decibel level if its budget hadn't been squeezed by anti-education Republicans.
So I say congratulations to Horne, Huppenthal, Pearce and all the Republicans in power who would like nothing better than to dismantle public education and in particular punish The People's Republic of Tucson. You've done your anti-education, anti-children, anti-Arizona job well.
I don't know if Tom Horne and John Huppenthal, Arizona's two most recent ex-superintendents of education, ever get together, and I don't know if either of them spend any time with recalled Republican State Senator Russell Pearce. But the three of them definitely should find time to gather and celebrate now and then. They have every reason to high five one another as they look down from Phoenix at the political and personal battles raging in and around TUSD and say to each other, "Look at the mess we created down there. We did some good work, didn't we?"