AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The Texas Board of Education bypassed voting Wednesday on a hotly debated proposal to create a statewide Mexican-American studies course as a high school elective, instead simply asking publishers to submit textbooks for such a class and several other ethnic studies topics by the 2016-2017 school year.
Democratic member Ruben Cortez of Brownsville had promised to call for a vote on creating a stand-alone Mexican-American studies course, and supporters maintained it was key to truly understanding a state that was once part of Mexico and where Hispanics make up 51 percent of public school students.
But opponents dismissed the idea as reverse racism, arguing that it would inject leftist ideology into the classroom. Cortez said when it became clear that the board's 10 Democrats and five Republicans weren't ready to support his proposal, he settled on an alternative approach.
That meant asking publishers to submit textbooks for courses school districts can develop locally focusing on Mexican-American, African-American, Native American and Asian-American studies. The plan passed 11-3, even though those opposed noted that schools across Texas have long been able to develop their own such classes — and that books already exist to help them do so.
Still, Cortez said there's never been a state-sanctioned textbook just on Mexican-American studies and the other topics, and called the vote's outcome "a historic day for Texas."
"The biggest difficulty for school districts is not developing a course, it's obtaining the appropriate instructional materials," he said after the meeting. Tony Diaz, an activist and director of intercultural initiatives at Lone Star College in suburban Houston, then rushed over and shook his hand.
"This is huge," cried Diaz, who led a group of supporters to testify in favor of a statewide Mexican-American studies course before the board Tuesday. "We came here expecting Mexican-American studies and instead we're leaving helping all our brothers and sisters get represented in the school district courses."
David Bradley, a Beaumont Republican who voted against Cortez's measure, countered that the issue wasn't about expanding Mexican-American studies courses to include the study of other ethnicities in Texas — but about providing political cover so supporters wouldn't go home empty-handed.
"Nothing happened and they're declaring victory," Bradley said.
Texas students already learn a lot of Mexican-American history and culture in existing classes — with lessons on topics from Tejano pioneers who were trailblazers in Texas in the 1500s to the life of civil rights leader Hector P. Garcia. But supporters of creating a statewide course said that while Texas' current social studies curriculum is packed with lessons about the likes of Sam Houston and the Alamo, there's far less attention paid to Hispanic achievements throughout the state's history.
Several Texas school boards, including its largest in Houston, had passed resolutions supporting a statewide Mexican-American studies course. Also, 11 state senators and 39 members of the Texas House sent letters to the board supporting the course.
Still, the board's even mulling the course rekindled past ideological battles about what gets taught in America's second most-populous state.
It's also a preview of the ferocious debate over the content of new social studies textbooks board members will discuss for use in classrooms across Texas later this year. As recently as 2010, then-board member Mary Helen Berlanga, a Democrat, stormed out of a meeting on the social studies curriculum after failing in her efforts to include more lessons on Hispanic leaders, declaring: "We can just pretend this is a white America and Hispanics don't exist."
Cortez said Wednesday that his measure could help undo the board's "past mistakes."