AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The Texas Board of Education considered a long-shot proposal Tuesday that would add a Mexican-American studies course as a statewide high school elective, listening to dozens of supporters who said such a class is the only way to truly understand a state where Hispanics make up 51 percent of public school students and which was once part of Mexico.
During hours of often-heated testimony, some backers of the proposal choked back tears and others argued bitterly with skeptical board members. Those opposed to the course say it would inject progressive politics into the classroom.
The board's 10 Republicans and five Democrats vote on new courses Wednesday. It's the first time Texas has considered a Mexican-American studies class, and specifics on exactly what the course would teach haven't yet been devised — especially since historic figures of Mexican descent and Mexican-American culture are already covered in existing history and other classes at the high school level.
Even if approved, developing a Mexican-American curriculum and appropriate textbooks means it wouldn't actually be ready for classrooms for two to three years. But the debate re-ignited past ideological battles over the academic curriculums of America's second most-populous state.
"The whole world is watching and the whole world is changed," Tony Diaz, an activist from Houston, told the board. "It will never go back to the way it was. I mention that because Texas is behind, we need to help Texas catch up."
Several Texas school boards, including its largest in Houston, have passed resolutions supporting a statewide Mexican-American studies course, and the state already offers more than 200 high school electives, including floral design. Still the proposal likely won't pass.
Some Republicans on the board have said they'd be more amenable to a multicultural studies class encompassing the accomplishments of Mexican-Americans but also Texans of other races and ethnicities.
"From what I'm hearing, we have a tough road to climb," said Ruben Cortez, a Democratic board member from Brownsville who proposed the course, adding "it shouldn't be controversial."
But even before public testimony began, Republican member David Bradley of Beaumont called the course "reverse racism" and threatened "to pull a Cesar Chavez and boycott." That was a reference to legendary Hispanic labor leader Cesar Chavez and his boycotts on behalf of farmworkers — and Bradley eventually kept his word and failed to show up Tuesday.
Even without him, emotions ran high. In urging the board to "do the right thing" and approve the course, Vietnam War veteran and Hispanic activist Placido Salazar decried the Texas of yesteryear and "racists from the word go, or, as we call them today, 'conservatives.'"
San Antonio Republican board member Ken Mercer noted that Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio were his favorite U.S. senators and said both are "Hispanic, but they're from Cuba" and thus may not make the curriculum of a Mexican-American studies course. He suggested a Hispanic studies class might be more appropriate.
Those supporting a Mexican-American studies course countered that "watered-down multicultural courses" wouldn't go far enough.
"We're simply asking that our stories be told," said Leonardo Trevino, representing a group called Mexican American Studies Unidos. "When students begin to see themselves in the books that they are reading, seeing the histories and sacrifices of their grandparents and parents, they tend to do better in school."
The issue has already flared in other states. In California, a recently introduced bill would mandate creating a standardized, statewide ethnic studies course there. In 2010, Arizona approved a law targeting a Tucson school district's ethnic studies program, after officials complained that its Mexican-American studies component taught Latino students that they were oppressed by whites.
In Texas, school districts can already create their own, local Mexican-American studies courses — but there's no statewide model.
Still, Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, noted that youngsters are required to study Texas history in the fourth and seventh grades, and are already taught about subjects like the life of Mexican-American civil rights giant Hector P. Garcia and the efforts of trailblazing Tejanos dating back to the 1500s.
"I don't want people to think it's not being taught without a separate course," Ratcliffe said "because it is."