Texas education board approves course formerly known as Mexican-American studies

After years of debate, the State Board of Education voted preliminarily to create curriculum standards for a Mexican-American studies class. But thanks to the objections of one member, it'll now be called “Ethnic Studies: An Overview of Americans of Mexican Descent.”

State Board of Education member Marisa Perez-Diaz speaks to a group of people rallying for the inclusion of Mexican-American studies in public school curriculum outside the Texas Education Agency on April 11, 2018. Laura Skelding

* Update, April 13: On Friday, the State Board of Education gave its final approval to development of the Ethnic Studies: An Overview of Americans of Mexican Descent course. 

Texas advocates for Mexican-American studies classes won a bitter victory Wednesday, gaining approval to move forward with the class they wanted but losing the course title.

The State Board of Education had been debating more than four years over how and whether to offer teachers materials and guidance to teach Mexican-American studies. In a preliminary vote, the board voted nearly unanimously to create curriculum standards for the elective class. But now it will be called “Ethnic Studies: An Overview of Americans of Mexican Descent.”  

A final vote on the issue is scheduled for Friday.

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The class will be based on an innovative course Houston ISD got state approval to offer in 2015. Texas Education Agency staff will make any needed changes to that set of curriculum standards and then bring it back for the first of two public hearings and votes in June.

Lawrence Allen Jr., a Houston Democrat, was the only member to vote against the newly named course, expressing support for Mexican-American studies but criticizing the new title.

Starting a fierce debate with Democrats on the board, Beaumont Republican David Bradley proposed the new name for the course. When asked why he didn’t want to keep “Mexican-American studies,” he said, “I don’t subscribe to hyphenated Americanism. … I find hyphenated Americanism to be divisive.”

“As someone who identifies as Mexican-American, your experience is unlike my experience,” San Antonio Democrat Marisa Perez-Diaz retorted. “I’m asking you to be inclusive.”

Most Democrats, except for El Paso Democrat Georgina Pérez, voted against Bradley’s proposal. But they were outnumbered. Standing outside the hearing room to discuss their strategy after the vote, Texas professors and teachers criticized Pérez for voting to strip the Mexican-American studies class of its name and brainstormed future options.

“We can change the name in the public comment phase if enough of you turn out,” said Brownsville Democrat Ruben Cortez, who represents District 2 on the board and has been spearheading the fight for a Mexican-American studies course for years.

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Of 38 people who signed up to testify on the issue, 37 noted they were in favor of approving the course. (The one person who signed up in opposition is Friendswood ISD board member Matt Robinson, likely to replace Bradley in January. He did not speak Wednesday.)

Even before the vote, Texas teachers could already offer Mexican-American studies as a social studies elective, but they had to put in additional work to build a course structure and choose textbooks. That left smaller school districts facing an uphill climb to get a class started.

With little centralized guidance on what to teach in Mexican-American studies, districts currently offer varying versions of the course.

Teachers already offering some version of Mexican-American studies shared positive reviews from their students who talked about being thrilled to see themselves reflected in their coursework. They also asked the board to approve a set of centralized standards for how to teach the course so they could spend more time teaching than planning what to teach.

“Students have a lot more freedom when we learn about our culture,” said Damian Mota, a seventh-grade student at KIPP Camino Academy in San Antonio. “If you walk into our classroom, you’re not going to see a traditional classroom. We are passionate learners who back up our claims.”

Teachers and professors who testified cited research showing that students who learn their cultural histories do better academically.

"We're not proposing a supplement to what is already being done," said University of Texas at Austin professor Emilio Zamora. "Research has demonstrated that Mexican-American studies … does improve academic performance."

At the board's first public hearing on the matter in January, some Republican board members pushed back on the idea of an official course. Board member Marty Rowley, an Amarillo Republican, said in January that a Mexican-American studies course could be exclusionary by not focusing on the contribution of "other Latinos to Texas history or American history."

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In 2014, the board rejected a proposal to create an official Mexican-American studies course, with some members arguing that creating a separate class would be racially divisive. Instead, board members voted to put ethnic studies, including Mexican-American, African-American, Asian-American and Native American studies, on a list of social studies textbooks it would ask publishers to develop for Texas schools.

Critics of that decision have argued that asking publishers to create books without curriculum standards to reference is ineffectual. They said approving the course first, and the standards to go along with it, would give publishers much needed guidance as well as reassurance that school districts might actually buy their textbooks.

The board has twice put out calls for ethnic studies textbooks since 2015 and failed to find Mexican-American studies materials they wanted to approve.

Board members also voted Wednesday to create a process for approving other elective courses in ethnic studies. Courses in Native American, Latino, African American and Asian Pacific Islander studies will be considered.

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