Arizona Republic
January 29, 2007

Author: Linda Valdez, The Arizona Republic Estimated printed pages: 3
(Phoenix, AZ)
The exchange was anachronistic enough to have happened in a 1950s television show. I half expected Perry Mason to rise with an objection.

The scene was U.S. District Court in Tucson. The issue was the long-running Flores vs. Arizona case. That's the 15-year-old lawsuit that resulted in a federal court ordering Arizona to justify what it spends to educate children who do not speak English.

Under federal law, ignoring these children is not an option. The Equal Opportunity Education Act requires the state to pay the extra costs associated with teaching them. For three weeks, attorneys were in court arguing whether a 2006 state law adequately does that.

Tim Hogan of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest says it doesn't.

On the other side is a dizzying array of private attorneys representing the state. Jose Cardenas represents the attorney general and Gov. Janet Napolitano's very sane position that the law is fatally flawed for reasons that go beyond the funding.

David Cantelme represents the Legislature's position that the law is just right.

But it was Eric Bistrow, who represents Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne's position that the law provides enough money, who made me think I was in a time warp.

He was questioning Steve Holmes of Tucson Unified School District, which has English-language learners in every one of its 100-plus schools. The district also has a Mexican-American/Raza Studies Department, which offers teachers optional curriculum that they can integrate into their regular classes as enrichment.

Just as learning about Beethoven, Shakespeare and Christopher Columbus can benefit all students, so can learning about Aztec myths and the art of Frida Kahlo. In fact, in these days when a lot of ugly, quasi-racist nonsense is being spewed about illegal immigrants, learning about the rich culture of Mexico is a good idea.

In Arizona, there are a great many people of Mexican heritage who are not illegal immigrants. Their parents and grandparents were born in the good, old USA. Their heritage is a treasure.

It's hard for me to understand what a cultural-appreciation program has to do with whether the state is adequately funding English acquisition. But the program came up several times during testimony.

Margaret Garcia Dugan, Arizona's deputy superintendent of public instruction, characterized it as "frivolous."

On Thursday, Bistrow grilled Holmes about the finite amount of time and money a district has to teach children "the body of English literature" and other material that "forms the cultural backbone of this country." He asked if units from Raza studies had the "same priority" as teaching English.

His point was clear: The district would have more money to teach children English if it didn't waste resources teaching about Mexican culture.

The same could be said about expending resources on football teams or the marching band. In Tucson's largest district, schools close for two days every year when the rodeo comes to town. This frivolous celebration of cowboy "heritage" wasn't challenged.

It was ethnic diversity that was targeted. And it was really sad to watch.
Bistrow is a private attorney paid by the public to represent the position of Horne, a man who was elected to serve as superintendent of public instruction for all kids, including those, like mine, who are of Mexican heritage. (In the interest of full disclosure, my husband is a teacher at Tucson Unified.)

In the interest of my country, let me say that the continued strength of this nation depends on embracing and valuing the many different kinds of people who live here.

The attempt to characterize ethnic studies as "frivolous" was totally out of place in a 21st-century courtroom.

It made me think of a time when White men made all the rules and none of them seemed to have the cultural awareness to know that the name of the Lone Ranger's trusted companion, Tonto, means "stupid."

Reach the writer at linda.valdez@arizonarepublic.com