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Ed Board Blames Lege for Mexican-American Studies Textbook

Hispanic advocates, activists and elected officials from across the state on Tuesday called on the Texas Board of Education to reject a proposed Mexican-American studies textbook they blasted as racist.

Hispanic activists, advocates and elected officials protested a proposed Mexican-American studies textbook on Tuesday ahead of the Texas Board of Education's first public hearing on the text. Scholars who have reviewed it say it is riddled with factual errors and offensive ethnic stereotypes.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional comment.

Hundreds of Hispanic advocates, activists, students and elected officials from across the state on Tuesday called on the Texas Board of Education to reject a proposed Mexican-American studies textbook they blasted as blatantly racist and which many scholars have deemed historically inaccurate.

The 15-member education board took public input on the text during an hours-long public hearing at which some of the panel’s Republican members criticized the Legislature for diminishing the education board’s power to vet textbooks.

The panel will vote to accept or reject the text in November, when it will hold a second public hearing.

The controversial textbook, titled Mexican American Heritage, was the only submission the education board received after it issued a call in 2015 for ethnic studies textbooks to be used in classes at the high school level. The call was a big win for Hispanic advocates pushing for  Mexican-American studies courses, although they failed to convince the board to officially create a statewide elective and corresponding curriculum.

A Virginia-based textbook company headed by a former far-right Republican member of the board published the controversial reader; Momentum Instruction CEO Cynthia Dunbar, who served on the board from 2007 to 2010, has blasted the widespread criticisms as “slanderous, libelous and defamatory statements that do not represent the content that's in the book." 

But several education board members expressed concerns about the text Tuesday, including at least two Republicans and all four of its Hispanic members, who are Democrats. Critics point to passages that say Chicano activists "adopted a revolutionary narrative that opposed Western civilization and wanted to destroy this society" and that "Stereotypically, Mexicans were viewed as lazy compared to European or American workers." (Dunbar, who did not address the board Tuesday, says her company has clarified at least some of the passages.)

Ruben Cortez Jr., D-Brownsville, who was so concerned about the text that he convened an ad-hoc committee of scholars and educators to review it, said he believes a supermajority of his colleagues will vote to reject it. (A report his committee unveiled last week found that the text is littered with errors.) Meanwhile, Vice Chairman Thomas Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, described the text Tuesday as “dead on arrival” and board member Marty Rowley, R-Amarillo, said he has “real concerns” about it. 

Chairwoman Donna Bahorich, R-Houston, kicked off the public hearing with a heartfelt message dedicated to “Mexican-American colleagues, friends and neighbors,” assuring them that the board is committed to approving accurate instructional materials that adequately reflect their major role in U.S. society.

“Your story is part of the American story,” she said. “Everyone deserves to have their story told in a fair and accurate manner.”

Several Republican board members criticized Texas legislators on Tuesday for passing laws over the years that have diminished the panel's authority to decide what textbooks local school districts use. And they warned that their weakened oversight could mean the proliferation of even more controversial instructional material.

They pointed specifically to legislation approved in 2011 that allowed school districts to choose textbooks that haven't been approved by the board as long as they can show their instructional materials cover state curriculum standards. (Senate Bill 6, passed in the wake of a raucous, high-profile debate over social studies curriculum in which members of the board’s since-diminished social conservative block — including Dunbar — grabbed national headlines for their extreme comments.)

David Bradley, R-Beaumont, and other board members complained repeatedly Tuesday that the law allows for publishers to peddle problematic textbooks directly to school districts. He and former board chairwoman Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, asked Democratic Hispanic lawmakers who addressed the board if they’d be willing to reconsider those parameters.

Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, acknowledged that “legislation has a history of unintended consequences and this very well may be a case.”The Senate Education Committee is “looking at everything including this issue you’re bringing up,” state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, who is a member of that panel, told the board.

State Sen. José Menéndez at the SBOE hearing on the controversial Mexican-American studies textbook in Austin, Texas, on Sept. 13, 2016.Martin do Nascimento

 But Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, said the purpose of Tuesday’s hearing was not to “re-litigate” old legislation but discuss whether the text should be allowed in Texas classrooms.

“Not only does this book not belong in the classroom, it doesn’t deserve the attention it’s getting now,” he said.

He and others repeatedly described the textbook Tuesday as so racist, inaccurate, incomplete and condescending that it cannot be corrected. 

In fact, Chicanos like my parents in the civil rights movement were pushing this country to live up to the country’s highest ideals,” Celina Moreno, an attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, said at a rally ahead of Tuesday’s public hearing attended by a few hundred people. 

None of the more than 100 people who signed up to address the board Tuesday indicated support for the textbook, according to a list provided by the Texas Education Agency. Next month, the agency will announce errors in the text the publisher is required to correct before the board takes a final vote.

"Most of the testimony today made it clear that the testifiers had not in fact read the content currently before the board. The allegations of racism and ill intent are so patently false that they are, quite frankly, legally defamatory," Dunbar said in an email after the hearing.

Several opponents, including Cortez, said Tuesday that more textbooks likely would have been submitted for consideration if the education board had approved Mexican-American studies as an official elective rather than just issuing a call for instructional material. 

"I think you punted," said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, a left-leaning advocacy group that closely monitors the state board. No official course means "no incentive for publishers to know that this course would be offered in lots and lots of classrooms around the state and therefore make some money off of it."

Read more of the Tribune's coverage of the controversial Mexican-American studies textbook:

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