Texas took a step toward instituting ethnic studies courses in public schools across the state on Wednesday, with the State Board of Education voting 11 to 3 to create instructional materials for such classes.
Activists had pushed since November for the Texas SBOE to create a statewide Mexican-American studies curriculum, arguing that such courses would help boost student achievement and foster cultural awareness in the state’s majority-Hispanic school system.
Instead, the more modest measure approved Wednesday mandates the adoption of textbooks for elective classes on Mexican-American studies, African-American studies, Native-American studies and Asian-American studies. Courses will be developed locally and schools will be able to adopt successful models developed in other districts using the state-approved instructional materials.
The idea won bipartisan support, with conservatives applauding the approach of giving local districts control over which curricula to adopt, while ethnic studies advocates looked forward to taking a greater role in developing the courses than if the state had been charged with the task.
“This is huge,” said Tony Diaz, whose group Librotraficante launched the push to create Mexican-American studies classes for Texas high schools last year. “I’m really proud that this is a Texas thing, we have Republicans and Democrats voting on this together.”
Dozens of activists and educators testified in support of adopting Mexican-American studies at an SBOE hearing on Tuesday, including former state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, an Austin Democrat.
“I grew up in Bastrop, Texas,” Barrientos said. “There were three schools when I started in the first grade. There was a school for Anglos, a school for African-Americans and a school for Mexicans -- even though our family and so many of us had been here since before there were borders … I think it behooves us all to study all of our history and remember that there are those individuals who have been overlooked, who have contributed to our country so much.”
Educators across the state had endorsed the idea, saying that culturally relevant courses could help improve Hispanic student achievement. Several Texas school districts -- including Houston, the state’s largest -- have passed resolutions in support of creating a Mexican-American Studies class.
More than half of Texas’ nearly 5 million public school students are Hispanic, the vast majority of them Mexican-American. But the graduation rate for Latino students stood at just 84.3 percent in 2012, well below the 93 percent rate for non-Hispanic white students, according to the most recent data from the Texas Education Agency.
“Unfortunately, there’s some institutionalized racism in our educational system that needs to be addressed,” Juan Tejeda, an instructor of Music and Mexican-American Studies at Palo Alto College in San Antonio, told The Huffington Post in November. “Students are not seeing themselves reflected positively in the textbooks … If the schools are making you feel bad about who you are, you’re not going to be able to succeed.”
Republicans, who hold a majority of 10 to five seats on the SBOE, viewed the proposal with suspicion. One Republican member of the board, David Bradley, called the proposal for a Mexican-American studies high school class “reverse racism.” Others argued that devising a Mexican-American studies curriculum should fall to local districts rather than the state -- a plan initially rejected by supporters, who said it would duplicate efforts and act as a barrier to schools with limited resources.
In the end, however, the more limited proposal wound up appealing to both sides.
“I’m a Mexican-American, but I’m also an American, I’m a Texan,” Democratic board member Ruben Cortez, who submitted the proposal, said before Wednesday’s vote. “I’m feeling pretty proud at this moment."
Texas seems to be taking a different trajectory on the issue than a nearby state with a similarly large Mexican-American population, Arizona. Diaz co-founded Librotraficante -- Spanish for “book smuggler” -- to protest the Arizona legislature’s banning of a Mexican-American studies curriculum in Tucson. Conservatives claimed the curriculum politicized students and bred resentment against white people.
Tucson's teachers denied the allegations. A state-commissioned audit recommended expanding the courses, while independent researchers found the courses had improved student achievement. A lawsuit challenging Arizona’s ethnic studies law has been appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Rather than just protesting what was happening in Arizona, Librotraficante started pressing for change in its own state.
“This is about Texans working together to improve our community,” Diaz said. “I think it’s going to spread like wildfire.”