Patrick Faults Critics of Bill on College History Classes

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, at a Senate Education Committee hearing on March 12, 2013.
State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, at a Senate Education Committee hearing on March 12, 2013.

Addressing criticism that he wants to eliminate college courses in Mexican-American and African-American history, state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, said in a Facebook post that such comments by activists misrepresent the legislation he has authored.

“I wish these same groups would spend their time and energy supporting my education policy for more choice for the hundreds of thousands of minority students who are dropping out of our schools, or graduating with minimum skills,” Patrick said in the Sunday evening post. 

Patrick's Senate Bill 1128 would tweak statute so that core curriculum requirements for American and Texas history at public colleges and universities could only be satisfied by comprehensive survey courses rather than what he referenced as "singular topics on race, gender, and topics like the Culture of Alcohol and Drugs, the History of Popular Music, or even a narrow topic like the history of Sea Power."

The bill has sparked outrage among some activists, like Tony Diaz, a Houston-based writer and leader of the Librotraficante (book trafficker) movement. On Twitter, he has said the legislation is attempting to "build border walls around history" and added it's like Arizona's House Bill 2811 "all over again."

The controversial Arizona measure, which became law in 2010, prohibits classes in public schools that “promote the overthrow of the United States government, promote resentment toward a race or class of people, are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group, [or] advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”

A press release from the Librotraficantes said that "Patrick has basically taken Arizona House Bill 2281, the legal trigger used to prohibit Mexican American Studies in Arizona, and mixed up the numbers to create TX SB1128, thinking we would not notice this attempt to destroy Mexican American and African American Studies in Texas."

A petition to stop the bill on the grounds that it endangers ethnic studies was posted on Change.org. As of Monday morning, it had about 650 signatures.

In his Facebook post, Patrick said he was not familiar with the Arizona bill and denied that he had angled for any specific number. "In the last few days a few minority groups have attacked me on SB 1128 saying I want to end courses about the Latino or African American culture. That is ridiculous," he wrote.

"When you know what your motives are, you are always surprised when someone sees it differently," he later told the Tribune.

In his post, he argued that the bill's purpose is to "to be sure that our core curriculum in history represents a comprehensive understanding of our history in areas of the economy, politics, war, and other significant events that have helped shape our past and who we are today."

The legislation was inspired by a controversial report from the National Association of Scholars, completed in association with fellow conservative groups the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Texas Association of Scholars.

The report's author, Richard Fonte, the former director of the We the People program at the National Endowment for the Humanities, examined the syllabi of courses at the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University that could count toward the state's American history requirements. Since 1971, Texas has required that students at public institutions complete two courses in American history.

“We found that all too often the course readings gave strong emphasis to race, class and gender social history, an emphasis so strong that it diminished the attention given to other subjects in American history (such as military, diplomatic, religious, intellectual history),” Fonte wrote.

The report's findings and methodology were quickly called into question. "This report is just so off base. It’s just not accurate," Jeremi Suri, a historian at UT, told the Tribune in January.

Many also sensed similarities between the report's objectives and a failed 2011 proposal from former state Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, that universities be required dedicate 10 percent of their courses to instruction in “Western Civilization.”

On Facebook, Patrick argued that Mexican-American and African-American contributions would be included in comprehensive survey courses of American and Texas history. "Both cultures have played a major part in our history and who we are today," he wrote. "Not understanding the great melting pot of race and culture that is a part of the fabric of America's past would be to miss a major part of our history. That needs to be taught and falls into what I call a broad and comprehensive history of our nation."

Patrick says that the menu of courses that satisfy a student's core requirements has grown too large and the options too narrow. He said of his bill, "If it doesn’t pass, and I’m not sure if it will, you could have a situation where the only people learning Latino history are Latinos."

Diaz does not buy it.

"Policymakers have had decades to get us to the state that [Patrick] believes exists where Mexican-American history and African-American history has been integrated to all courses," he said. "I just need to bring testimony after testimony after testimony where students, to this day, can get through a college education and not get that history."

Diaz said he has been trying to meet with Patrick but has not been successful. In his Facebook post, Patrick said he would be happy to meet with critics of his bill.

Finding common ground appears unlikely. Patrick said he believes that if he had met with groups campaigning against the bill, they "would have understood how wrong they are." Diaz said on Monday that he is not willing to compromise on his opposition to Patrick's bill or its companion, House Bill 1938, by state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake.

"It would basically sabotage the entire intellectual landscape of Texas schools and set a terrible precedent of micromanagement that would further decimate Texas education," Diaz said.

Concern about universities being "micromanaged" has been a hot topic at the Legislature, but Patrick said this bill did not fall into that category. He also said that education requirements are appropriate issues for lawmakers to grapple with. "We have a responsibility to the taxpayers," he said.

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