After years of bitter debate over whether ethnic studies courses are racially divisive, the Texas State Board of Education appears poised to approve its first African American studies course next year.
The 15-member board, which is responsible for setting curriculum standards and adopting textbooks for Texas public schools, heard from dozens of students, educators and advocates at a public hearing Wednesday, most who favored the new course.
"We will be passing this," said board member Pat Hardy, a Fort Worth Republican.
The board's seeming consensus marks a tremendous shift: In 2014, many Republicans voted down a proposal to create a Mexican American studies course, arguing it would divide instead of unite students. Hardy herself was a skeptic, saying: "We're not about Hispanic history; we're about American history."
Over the next several months, the board will create curriculum standards for the course based on an existing class in the Dallas Independent School District, and is expected to take a final vote in April. It's the same process the board used to approve a Mexican American studies course last year, based on an existing course in Houston ISD.
Hardy told The Texas Tribune on Wednesday that she has always been a proponent of ethnic studies. She said the timing in 2014 was not right for a Mexican American studies course because the board and its staff did not have time to build a set of requirements for it from scratch.
Board member Ruben Cortez, the Brownsville Democrat who first proposed the Mexican American studies course in 2014, has a different theory for the change of heart: "After that long drawn-out five-year fight to get Mexican American studies approved, [Republicans] don't want to deal with it anymore."
It's also possible that fiery debates could reignite when board members meet next January and April to discuss curriculum standards for the new course.
Georgina Perez and Aicha Davis, both Democrats on the board, helped create the Dallas ISD class, which is a comprehensive survey of African American politics, culture, and history, beginning with pre-colonial African civilizations and ending in the modern era.
Quardasha Mitchell, a junior at Trinidad Garza Early College High School in Dallas ISD, told the board Wednesday that she used to sit in social studies classes and wonder why she was learning about the same black leaders over and over again: Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King.
In the first semester of the Dallas ISD African American studies class, she said, she's learned more than she ever has in other courses. "Too much of our history has been concealed and it seems as if my ancestors were just people who worked on plantations and picked cotton," she said.
At Wednesday's public hearing, proponents of the course, most of them black and Hispanic, rattled off lists of the historical events and cultural leaders omitted from standard social studies and history courses. They said students of color who learn about their cultural history are more likely to be motivated in school, citing studies showing the academic and social benefits of ethnic studies classes.
About 40% of students currently taking the Dallas class are Hispanic, said Leslie Williams, Dallas ISD's deputy chief of racial equity.
At the hearing, Dallas ISD high school students currently taking African American studies classes stood in their navy blue school uniforms and waved their hands in the air as they congratulated classmates who stepped up to the podium to address the board.
"We were supposed to learn about American history yet there's a lot of information being forgotten and left in the shadows," said Taylor Ellingberg-McLeod, a student at Trinidad Garza Early College High School. "It is unfortunate I have to work so hard to get a basic understanding of where I came from."