April 9, 2014

Activists want Mexican-American studies in all Texas schools

But the proposal gets a cool reception at the State Board of Education.

The state board of education considered a long-shot proposal Tuesday that would add a Mexican-American studies course as a statewide high school elective, listening to dozens of supporters who said such a class is the only way to truly understand a state where Hispanics make up 51 percent of public school students and which was once part of Mexico.

During hours of often-heated testimony, some backers of the proposal choked back tears and others argued bitterly with skeptical board members.

Those opposed to the course say it would inject progressive politics into the classroom.

The board’s 10 Republicans and five Democrats vote on new courses Wednesday.

It’s the first time Texas has considered a Mexican-American studies class, and specifics on exactly what the course would teach haven’t been devised. Historic Texans of Mexican descent and Mexican-American culture are already covered in existing history and other classes, including Texas history in the fourth and seventh grades.

Even if approved, developing a Mexican-American curriculum and appropriate textbooks means it wouldn’t actually be ready for classrooms for two to three years. But the debate re-ignited past ideological battles about what’s taught to students in the nation’s second most-populous state.

“The whole world is watching, and the whole world is changed,” Tony Diaz, an activist from Houston, told the board. “It will never go back to the way it was. I mention that because Texas is behind, we need to help Texas catch up.”

The state has created curriculum guidelines for more than 200 high school electives, including floral design, musical theater, landscape design and turf-grass management.

The Fort Worth school district has had a Mexican-American studies course in its curricula for more than a decade, a curriculum official said Tuesday.

Several Texas school boards, including for the largest district, Houston, have passed resolutions supporting a statewide Mexican-American studies course. Still the proposal likely won’t pass the state board.

Some Republicans on the board have said they’d be more amenable to a multicultural studies class encompassing the accomplishments of Mexican-Americans but also Texans of other races and ethnicities.

Board member Patricia Hardy, R-Weatherford, told the Houston Chronicle before the meeting that the state already includes a considerable amount of Mexican-American history in the curriculum. A former social-studies teacher, she argued that a Mexican-American studies class would do students a disservice if it displaces other social-studies offerings.

“World geography or world history would be more to a student’s advantage,” she says.“They need more global courses that are broader than Mexican-American.”

It’s easy, she says, for any teacher to design a specialized class. She did herself, when she taught social studies.

But for the state to approve official curriculum for a class that focuses on one ethnic group,“whether it’s the majority or not, is wrong,” she says. “We’re citizens of the United States, not citizens of Mexico.”

“From what I’m hearing, we have a tough road to climb,” said Ruben Cortez, D-Brownsville, who proposed the course. “It shouldn’t be controversial.”

Even before public testimony began Tuesday, Republican member David Bradley of Beaumont called the course “reverse racism” and threatened “to pull a Cesar Chavez and boycott.” That was a reference to legendary Hispanic labor leader Cesar Chavez and his boycotts on behalf of farmworkers — and Bradley eventually kept his word and did not show up for Tuesday’s meeting.

Even without him, emotions ran high.

In urging the board to “do the right thing” and approve the course, Vietnam War veteran and Hispanic activist Placido Salazar decried the Texas of yesteryear and “racists from the word go, or, as we call them today, ‘conservatives.’ ”

Board member Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, noted that Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio were his favorite U.S. senators and said both are “Hispanic, but they’re from Cuba” and thus may not make the curriculum of a Mexican-American studies course. He suggested a Hispanic studies class might be more appropriate.

Those supporting a Mexican-American studies course countered that “watered-down multicultural courses” wouldn’t go far enough.

“We’re simply asking that our stories be told,” said Leonardo Trevino, representing a group called Mexican American Studies Unidos. “When students begin to see themselves in the books that they are reading, seeing the histories and sacrifices of their grandparents and parents, they tend to do better in school.”

The issue has already flared in other states. In California, a recently introduced bill would mandate creating a standardized, statewide ethnic studies course there. In 2010, Arizona approved a law targeting a Tucson school district’s ethnic studies program, after officials complained that its Mexican-American studies component taught Latino students that they were oppressed by whites.

In Texas, school districts can already create their own, local Mexican-American studies courses, but there’s no statewide model.

Still, Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, noted that youngsters are required to study Texas history in the fourth and seventh grades, and are already taught about subjects like the life of Mexican-American civil rights giant Hector P. Garcia and the efforts of trailblazing Tejanos dating back to the 1500s.

“I don’t want people to think it’s not being taught without a separate course,” Ratcliffe said “because it is.”

This report includes material from the Houston Chronicle.

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