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Texas board set to vote on Mexican-American studies course

Texas board set to vote on Mexican-American studies course
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Emilio Zamora, a University of Texas at Austin professor, addressed the semi-circle of eager onlookers at the Texas Education Agency’s central Austin building with a knowing smile: “Well, we’re back!”

Zamora and fellow advocates holding white cardboard and bright neon signs are by now a common fixture before State Board of Education hearings, first unsuccessfully demanding the board approve a Mexican-American studies elective in 2014. They filled rows of chairs at board hearings in 2016 to successfully oppose a proposed Mexican-American studies textbook that included the line: “Stereotypically, Mexicans were viewed as lazy compared to European or American workers.”

They are now hoping for another win.

The board is set to take a preliminary vote later Wednesday on whether to create graduation requirements and curriculum standards outlining what students need to learn for an official Mexican-American studies class. It is expected to take a final vote Friday.

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Zamora is part of a coalition of Mexican-American studies teachers and professors offering to serve as a free working group for the board to help decide what students should be required to learn in the course. They created a draft version of curriculum standards for the course — an interdisciplinary take on Mexican-American history over time that’s intended to complement the existing U.S. History class.

“This can be done at a nominal cost,” said board member Ruben Cortez, Jr., a Brownsville Democrat, at Wednesday morning’s rally. “These experts have said, ‘We’ll do this work for free.”

“We’re not proposing a supplement to what is already being done,” Zamora said. “Research has demonstrated that Mexican-American studies…does improve academic performance.”

Administrators and teachers can currently offer Mexican-American studies as a social studies elective, but they must put in additional work to build a course structure and choose textbooks. That leaves 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.

Advocates want to model the course on a full-year, full-credit “innovative class” Houston ISD already received state permission to offer.

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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 Amarill0 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.”

San Antonio Democrat Marisa Perez-Diaz responded: Why not approve them all?

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.

Even if the board approves the course this week, the State Board of Education’s staff members have said they would not be able to start working on creating the curriculum standards until the end of the year, at earliest.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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