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Mexican-American Studies, Other Cultures Now Electives in Texas

Image: Ruben Cortez Jr.

State Board of Education member Ruben Cortez Jr., center, questions a speaker during a hearing, Tuesday, April 8, 2014, in Austin, Texas. On Wednesday, April 9, the Texas Board of Education voted to add a Mexican-American studies course as a statewide high school elective, as well as electives on Asian-American, African-American, and Native American studies. Eric Gay / AP

As a kid in Brownsville, Texas, Ruben Cortez Jr. had limited exposure to Latino history. “In school, we learned a little about Cesar Chavez, as part of a unit on civil rights, it wasn’t much. I went through the Texas school system without knowing much about other Hispanics in our history.”

Now a member of the Texas State Board of Education, Cortez, 39, has won approval from the board of a measure he sponsored to create an elective course on Mexican-American Studies for Texas public high school students. “This course didn’t exist in my day. And it doesn’t exist now. But why not create one, to inspire a new generation of kids?” Cortez said.

The Texas State Board of Education voted 11-3 to add elective courses to include Special Topics in Social Studies to include Mexican-, African-, Asian-, and Native American Studies. Cortez's measure had bipartisan support.

Although he did not win approval for the stand-alone course in Mexican-American Studies that he originally sought, Cortez was pleased with the outcome. "I reached a good compromise with my colleagues, it was time we had this conversation. It's a proud day to be a Texan."

Author and activist Tony Diaz was jubilant over the decision. “This is huge, he said. "We came here for Mexican-American Studies and we actually got more, to benefit more communities. It shows that Texas can be a leader in education.” Under the plan that passed, any school district in Texas will have access to the state-approved curriculum. The state also plans to issue a call to publishers for materials, he said, which could benefit Latino authors and writers.

The vote was surprising to many, although momentum had been growing in support of the proposal. The school board of the Houston Independent School District (HISD), the largest school district in Texas, voted on Thursday to approve Mexican American Studies as an elective counting towards graduation. HISD joined other Texas school districts in approving the plan, as well as the Texas Association of School Administrators.

Statistics from the Texas Education Agency for 2012-2013 show that Hispanics comprise 51.3 percent of Texas public school students. Supporters of the Mexican-American Studies course pointed to these numbers to make their case that the state’s curriculum should be more reflective of its student body, while opponents said that students already cover Latino history and culture as part of existing courses.

Diaz said that more culturally-inclusive courses will benefit educators as well as students. “A Texas principal was recently fired because she told her students that they could not speak Spanish,” he said. “If that educator had taken Mexican-American Studies, they would know that such actions are humiliating, offensive to us.” A culturally relevant curriculum, he added, could help more Latino students stay in school.

Although Texas’ high school graduation rates hit an all-time high last year, the graduation rate for Latinos (84.3 percent) lags behind the state’s overall graduation rate (87.7 percent).

As late as Tuesday, Thomas Ratliff, vice chairman of the State Board of Education, remained skeptical about the need for a Mexican-American Studies program. “I haven’t been told why the Mexican-American culture is so significantly different that we have to study it alone.” He worried that the issue was “being turned into a media stunt, more than a policy discussion.”

State Board of Education member Patricia Hardy, who voted no, said she favored a decentralized solution known as “local control” instead of a state-approved curriculum. Under “local control,” school districts can create their own customized courses of study. “Any district in the state can develop a Mexican-American studies program if they want to,” she said. A locally-devised program, she said, could get into classrooms much quicker than a state-approved program, which would likely take several years before it reached students.

According to Hardy, a “local control” approach to Mexican-American Studies would also be cheaper than designing a state-approved curriculum.

Hardy took exception to the partisan tone of the Mexican-American Studies debate. “I don’t like the divisiveness; my motive is to do what’s best for the whole school system,” she said.

The Texas State Board of Education is no stranger to controversy. In 2010, the Board approved guidelines for history textbooks that questioned the Founding Fathers’ ideals of separation of church and state and presented conservative political philosophies in a more favorable light. That same year, it approved a resolution against what it claimed were “pro-Islamic” biases in social studies textbooks. Last year the Board questioned the use of a biology textbook because it presented evolution as a fact.

Julian Vasquez Heilig, associate professor of Educational Policy and Planning at the University of Texas at Austin, is not surprised that the debate over Mexican-American Studies has proved so heated. “Remember, just a few years ago, the State Board thought we should call slavery the “Atlantic triangular trade,” he said. “Some people think diversity is problematic. But it can send a message to the community that our leaders and our history are recognized.”

Heilig is unfazed by one of the most common objections to offering Mexican-American Studies: that if the curriculum is approved, then other ethnic groups might want their own programs. “We have lots of science classes, why not have lots of culture classes? It’s just providing choices for students to learn from different perspectives.”

This afternoon, activist Diaz was excited about the success of his grassroots effort. “Throughout the proceedings today, the board kept referring to the testimony and community input they received," he said. "Our approach worked, we made ourselves heard.”