Texas' Long Battle Over Including Mexican-American Studies In High School Is Almost Over

Activists in Austin got something Wednesday for which they've pushed for almost five years.

The Texas State Board of Education gave preliminary approval to a Mexican-American studies elective for high school students, closing out a debate that began with an unsuccessful attempt in 2014. They couldn't do so, however, without taking one last swipe at the groups that have pushed the board, first for inclusion and then over a racist textbook proposed for the subject two years ago.

“Texas has a sad and tortured past of having to be here at venues like this at every critical juncture to argue for facts, to argue for history, to argue for inclusion, and to argue for the value and the beauty of diversity,” state Rep. Celia Israel, a Democrat from Austin, told reporters before the SBOE began its hearing on the course Wednesday morning.

“Texas has a sad and tortured past of having to be here at venues like this at every critical juncture to argue for facts, to argue for history, to argue for inclusion." – state Rep. Celia Israel

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Two years ago, activists and supporters of a Mexican-American studies program gathered outside the SBOE's headquarters for a different reason, to stop the board from approving a textbook for the course that included language about Mexicans being "viewed as lazy compared to European or American workers," and working on "mañana time," which meant they put things off until tomorrow.

This time around, there was little controversy over the potential content of the course. Pending final approval from the board Friday, state guidelines for the high school class will be modeled on a state-approved "innovative class" now offered by Houston ISD.

Angela Valenzuela, a University of Texas education professor, told the board that a Mexican-American studies course in Arizona increased student performance and that more students who took the class attended college.

“The students benefited enormously from the experience of finally seeing themselves, their community, their history and stories mirrored in the public school curriculum,” she said.

While the board voted 14-1 in a preliminary tally to create standards for the class, it couldn't do so without one of its members aggravating those who've pushed so long for the class to get a state sign-off.

Board member David Bradley, a Republican, got the name of the class changed to “Ethnic Studies: An Overview of Americans of Mexican Descent.” He said allowing the class to be named "Mexican-American Studies" would cause divisiveness.

“I don’t subscribe to hyphenated Americanism,” he said.

Erika Beltran, one of four Democratic board members who voted against the name change, said the switch would put the state out of step with the academic community.

"Mexican-American studies is actually a field of scholarship," she said.

Once approved, it will be up to local school districts whether to offer the class — as board members were careful to emphasize Wednesday.
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young