Supporters of adding Mexican-American studies as an official Texas high school course say time is running out for the State Board of Education to approve the class for next school year.
Those pushing for the course said this week they hope the board would vote on the matter at its April meeting because the proposal didn’t make the agenda for last Friday’s meeting as they had hoped. Chairwoman Barbara Cargill said the development of new courses would be on the April agenda.
Opponents argue that ethnic studies classes are divisive, and they point out that districts already have the authority to develop Mexican-American studies as an “innovative course.” But supporters say that doesn’t go far enough in a state where 51.3 percent of public school students are Hispanic.
Board member Ruben Cortez, who proposed the course, said in an interview that it’s a hassle for districts to develop and seek state approval for innovative courses. He wants Mexican-American studies to be an official state class so districts have a consistent curriculum and textbook that they can choose to adopt.
“When you have a state that has a majority of Latino students in their public schools, this is a course that should go beyond the 'innovative' track and be proven by this body as a course that's offered as one of our approved courses,” Cortez, a Democrat, said at last week's board meeting.
But Republican board member Patricia Hardy said districts have plenty of leeway to teach classes locally that aren’t offered at the state level, such as Bible classes. And she said she’s concerned about multicultural courses like Mexican-American studies.
“We’re not about Hispanic history; we’re about American history,” Hardy said. “We’re not about taking each little group out and saying, ‘You’re the majority, so we’re going to teach your history.’ We’re Americans, United States people.”
Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe said Mexican-American studies is one of 20 new courses that the board is considering creating. The board can only develop a limited number of courses each year, so members will probably have to prioritize, she said.
“A lot of people don’t really understand the board process of how new courses are created, and I think some of the citizen concerns are stemming from the fact that they don’t realize how involved the process is,” Ratcliffe said. “I don’t think anybody is trying to delay or oppose consideration; it is just trying to prioritize the workload that the board has.”
Thomas Ratliff, the board’s vice chairman, said he doesn't understand why some of his fellow board members object to a Mexican-American studies class.
“Some of them are trying to say that they don’t want to start creating a whole bunch of other studies for every other ethnic group,” said Ratliff, a Republican. “I don’t understand that concern because there aren’t any other ethnic groups that make up a significant portion of the state’s population like the Hispanics do.”
University of Texas history professor Emilio Zamora said the proposed course would encourage understanding between ethnic groups and improve the psychological well-being of Mexican-American students as they study topics that speak to their experiences.
“If the courses are rigorous, comprehensive, fair and properly taught, one could assume that it would energize the student’s interest in learning and developing other skills,” he said.
Ingrid Vasquez, a junior at the University of Texas at Austin majoring in Mexican-American studies and journalism, said that despite growing up in Brownsville, she learned hardly anything in high school about U.S.-Mexico border issues. Mexican-American studies classes in college taught her for the first time about her culture and history, she said.
“I think if I would have had a Mexican-American studies course in middle school or high school, it would have helped me set bigger goals for myself,” Vasquez said.
Additional reporting by Alexa Ura