The Texas Legislature passed a resolution Friday morning declaring May 1, 2015, Mexican-American Studies Day. The move marks a symbolic victory for educators and activists who have pushed to expand ethnic studies classes in the state despite a lack of interest from the Republican-dominated State Board of Education.
The resolution, introduced by Democratic state Sens. Sylvia Garcia and José Rodríguez, encourages “all parents and educators to learn more about the value of Mexican American studies.” Educators held a rally in Houston to drum up support for the subject, while high school representatives from across the Rio Grande Valley, a heavily Hispanic area in South Texas, prepared for a meeting Saturday on implementing college-credit Mexican-American studies courses.
“Today’s kids want to know where they came from and where they're going, and that includes their history, their heritage, their culture," Garcia told The Huffington Post.
Educators have looked to ethnic studies courses as a way to boost student achievement in the state’s majority-Hispanic public school system. Supporters argue that creating curricula with more Hispanic authors, greater focus on Latinos' cultural and historic achievements and more critical study of issues like race will help engage students.
There is evidence to support that view. A study published in the American Educational Research Journal in December found that high school students who enrolled in a unique Mexican-American studies curriculum offered in Tucson, Arizona public schools from 2008 to 2011 performed better on state tests and graduated at a higher rate than students who didn't. The effect was most pronounced among students with lower grade point averages.
The Texas resolution cited the study’s results as part of the reason to name May 1 Mexican-American Studies Day.
“It’s really taken off,” said Tony Diaz, a professor, writer and activist and one of the drivers of the push for Mexican-American studies. “What’s exciting is that we’re about to connect all the dots for the good of our youth.”
Ethnic studies advocates pressed the State Board of Education last year to create a standardized Mexican-American studies curriculum that would carry college credit and would be optional for high schools. But the school board opposed the measure, instead urging educators to create their own curricula locally.
Dozens of schools across the state responded by implementing pilot programs in Mexican-American studies.
“Professors are spending countless hours developing the curriculum to offer our schools, for free,” said Ruben Cortez, a member of the state board. “It’s amazing to see that, despite the fact that we didn't get a course developed on the State Board of Education side, that the desire is still there in local schools."
Across the Southwest, some conservative politicians have pushed back aggressively against efforts to expand ethnic studies. In Arizona, Tucson's Mexican-American studies curriculum, which was cited in the AERJ study, was dismantled after the state's Republican-dominated legislature passed a law in 2010 restricting ethnic studies, arguing such courses bred resentment against whites. Students from Tucson Unified School District challenged the law. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in the case in January, but has not yet announced a decision.
Outside Arizona, however, ethnic studies are expanding. Several school districts in California, including the San Francisco and and Los Angeles Unified School Districts, have passed resolutions requiring schools to offer such classes. California Assemblyman Luis Alejo (D-Salinas) introduced a bill this year that would require all high schools in the state to offer ethnic studies, though it has yet to be voted out of the assembly’s appropriations committee.