TUSD still unequal, longtime critic says

Arizona Daily Star
Aug. 29, 2007


Opinion by Ernesto Portillo Jr.  


Tucson, Arizona | Published:  http://www.azstarnet.com/sn/related/198630.php

Tucson Unified School District continues to move toward possibly shedding the 29-year-old federal mandated desegregation order. Maria Mendoza, a key player in its creation, doesn't believe it.

TUSD, the state's largest K-12 school district, is still not providing an equal education for all its students, she believes.

"The district has been experimenting with our children," said Mendoza. "I'm not afraid to say it."

From desegregation to bilingual education, Mendoza has never been afraid to say what's on her mind regarding TUSD and public education.

Mendoza, 70, is one of the original plaintiffs in the 1978 federal class-action lawsuit against TUSD. In the lawsuit, Latino and black parents argued their children were receiving an unequal education. They fought hard for the district to racially integrate its schools.

As a remedy, the district chose busing and created magnet schools. After years of legal wrangling, a federal judge last week gave TUSD 30 days to show it has complied with the desegregation order.

Mendoza said she doubts TUSD will prove in 30 days what it has been unable to show in 30 years.

We met Monday over lunch on the South Side, not far from her longtime home near C.E. Rose Elementary on South 12th Avenue.

Even before the landmark federal court ruling, Mendoza had been a burr under the district's saddle. A mother of three, Mendoza wanted her children's teachers to use phonics to teach them reading. That's how she learned to read while attending school in Las Cruces, N.M.

She's a staunch supporter of "basic education." About the time the lawsuit was filed, Mendoza challenged the district's use of "whole language" methods.

Just teach the children basic math, reading, science and social studies, she preached to me over a plate of nopalitos, rice and beans. Good basic education will help young people break the cycle of poverty and social dysfunction, she said.

"Isn't that what we're trying to do? Make something of yourself?"

Tucson attorney Rubin Salter Jr., who represented the black families in the 1978 lawsuit, said Mendoza is a "one in a lifetime" person. "Maria had the vision and the guts to take on the system," said Salter.

Several years ago, Mendoza helped lead the successful state voter-approved ban on bilingual education in public schools.

Mendoza, who didn't get past the ninth grade but later briefly attended Pima College in hopes of becoming a lawyer, champions education. But she didn't like the course of public education since she worked as a teacher's aide about 40 years ago.

"It opened my eyes," she said.

When the pressure began mounting against TUSD in the years before the 1978 court order, Mendoza saw the issue through her unfiltered lens. Latino and black students on the West and South sides were not receiving the same education and educational opportunities as non-minority students on the East Side.

Mendoza said TUSD's desegregation efforts still have not improved black and Latino students' educations.

Mendoza said busing students across town was not the answer. While desegregation has brought some positive changes to TUSD students, "we have a lot of bright students who are lost."

After years of confronting TUSD administrators and board members, Mendoza is skeptical the district wants to end desegregation. "There's too much money involved," Mendoza said.

The district has received about $800 million in taxpayer funds for its magnet schools and other desegregation programs.

"It's the money they're interested in. Not the children."

Opinion by


Portillo jr.

● Contact columnist Ernesto Portillo Jr. at eportillo@ azstarnet.com or 573-4242. His blog is at go.azstarnet.com/blogs.