The State Board of Education tentatively approved creating a statewide Mexican-American studies course for high school students Wednesday, but with a catch.
The Republican-dominated board voted to name the optional elective “Ethnic Studies: An Overview of Americans of Mexican Descent” to appease its more hyphen-averse members.
David Bradley, R-Beaumont, who is arguably the most conservative member of the 15-person board, proposed the name in an amendment, saying a Mexican-American studies course title would cause divisiveness.
“I don’t subscribe to hyphenated Americanism,” Bradley said.
The vote on creating the course was 14-1; board members approved the name 10-4. Chairwoman Donna Bahorich, R-Houston, abstained from voting on the name.
Lawrence Allen, D-Houston, who was the only board member to vote against creating the course despite having expressed support for it in the past, said changing the name was problematic because minorities often perceive the term American as white.
“That’s not what we’re trying to say,” Allen said.
Georgina Pérez of El Paso was the only one of five Democrats on the board to join Republicans to support the name change. She said she didn’t want to risk the board not approving the course or not creating other ethnic studies courses.
“It was evident in the meeting that if the name change hadn’t occurred, nothing would have gone forward,” Pérez said. “I’m not willing to risk a potential opportunity.”
The other Democrats on the board — Marisa Perez-Diaz of Converse, Ruben Cortez of Brownsville and Erika Beltran of Fort Worth — also took issue with the name, arguing that it is political and doesn’t accurately reflect the experience of Mexican-Americans.
“I’m not asking you to prescribe to anything that separates somebody from being American,” Perez-Diaz told Bradley. “I’m asking you to be inclusive.”
Despite their disappointment in the name, Cortez and Perez-Diaz, longtime advocates for adopting a Mexican-American studies course, called Wednesday’s vote a victory.
“The majority of the board is ready to move forward and close this chapter and create this course. Today is absolutely a historic day in Texas,” Cortez said.
The earliest students could take the new Mexican-American studies course would be in the 2019-20 school year.
For the last four years, Mexican-American activists and scholars have pushed the state board to create a course that reflects their history. More than 30 students, teachers, scholars and activists showed up Wednesday to encourage the board to create the new course.
Divided along political lines in 2014, board members rejected the idea of a statewide Mexican-American studies course, instead adding it to a list of courses the board wanted to eventually develop. School districts were given the option of creating such a course on their own, and the board offered to create a list of recommended textbooks for Mexican-American studies and other ethnic studies areas for school districts to use.
Most school districts don’t offer Mexican-American studies courses, however, and the board has yet to adopt a Mexican-American studies textbook.
In the last two years, the board has considered and rejected two proposed textbooks — one that was considered racist by Mexican-American studies scholars and activists and another book that was not considered comprehensive enough by the board.
Advocates told board members Wednesday that research has shown that students who took Mexican-American studies saw better educational outcomes, including higher graduation rates, higher rates of retention, higher grades and better overall academic engagement. Creating a statewide curriculum for the course, they say, will prompt more school districts to offer it and more publishers to create textbooks for such courses.
“The students benefited enormously from the experience of finally seeing themselves, their community, their history and stories mirrored in the public school curriculum,” said Angela Valenzuela, a University of Texas professor.
The board must take a final vote Friday, which would call for the creation of curriculum standards. Board members indicated they want the course to mirror a Mexican-American studies course already offered by the Houston school district. The board could give preliminary approval of the curriculum standards during their June meeting and final approval in September.
In the meantime, Bahorich, the board chairwoman, encouraged the public to submit input for how the curriculum should look — as well as an alternative name for the course.
If the board approves the elective, Texas could be the only state besides Arizona with a statewide Mexican-American studies course for public schools, scholars say. Created in the 1990s, the Arizona course was banned in 2010 by state lawmakers, who said it would promote divisiveness among students of different ethnicities. But a federal judge late last year overturned the ban.
On Wednesday, the Texas board also approved adding to a future agenda the creation of other ethnic studies courses, including Native American studies, Latino studies, African-American studies, and Asian-Pacific Islander studies.