AUSTIN, Texas - The Texas Board of Education on Wednesday gave preliminary approval to creating statewide academic standards for a Mexican-American studies high school course — but only after changing the name to "ethnic studies," which conservatives argued is less alienating for other groups of people.
The issue has been hotly debated for years in a state that was once part of Mexico and where a majority of public school students are Hispanic. The vote was a small but key victory for supporters of including more in classrooms about the contributions of Mexican-Americans throughout Texas' history, but the name change reflects how contentious that remains.
The Republican-controlled board voted to begin working on a statewide curriculum for a course known as "Ethnic Studies: An Overview of Americans of Mexican Descent." A final vote is set for Friday.
Four years earlier, the same board refused to approve a full, statewide Mexican-American course. Texas' 1,000-plus school districts were instead allowed to create their own, and many did, including a course offered by schools in Houston, the country's seventh largest school district.
The idea was for a consistent state framework that would make it easier for administrators and teachers wanting to create Mexican-American studies courses in their school districts to do so. But how calling it "ethnic studies" may change what gets taught remains to be seen.
"I don't subscribe to hyphenated Americanism," said David Bradley, a Republican from the Gulf Coast city of Beaumont who proposed the name change. "I find hyphenated Americanism to be divisive."
Democrats bristled, but didn't have the votes to stop the change.
"As someone who identifies as Mexican-American your experience differs from my experience," said Marisa Perez-Diaz of San Antonio. "A vote in support of a change in this language sends a message that we are not about inclusivity."
Emotions ran high even before the vote. Supporters of teaching Mexican-American studies staged a morning rally outside the state education building, then dozens of teachers, students, parents, academic experts and activists — some wearing traditional Aztec dress, others as young as 12 — lined up to defend expanding the course in Texas.
When seventh graders said they were already taking a Mexican-American studies course, board member Pat Hardy, a Republican from Fort Worth, said that state law required them to be learning Texas history. That prompted a heated exchange with an elder activist, who said it was "terrifying" to suggest that students were engaging in illegal learning.
Hardy also argued that much of what was being taught in existing high school Mexican-American studies courses is already covered elsewhere in Texas curriculums.
"You don't just arbitrarily put someone into the curriculum just because you want to have someone of a different ethnic background," she said.
Key historic figures of Mexican descent and Mexican-American culture are covered in existing Texas and U.S. history courses. Texas already teaches students about Mexican-American civil rights giant Hector P. Garcia and the efforts of trailblazing Tejanos dating back to the 1500s. The Republic of Texas declared independence from Mexico in 1836 and was voluntarily annexed by the United States nine years later.
But supporters of Mexican-American studies say existing curriculums don't offer enough.
Now that it's approved to create a curriculum, the board will still have to vote on exactly what it will include. A group of academics and teachers already had offered to help the board create Mexican-American course frameworks, using Houston's as a base. It includes lessons on Hernan Cortez's first encounter with the Aztecs in 1519, the Mexican Revolution of 1910, the Bracero program — which allowed Mexicans to temporarily work in the United States during World War II and later — and iconic labour leaders Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.
Texas has more than 5.3 million public school students, second in the nation behind only California, where a 2016 law developed a model curriculum for ethnic studies to eventually be offered in all high schools. Arizona in 2010, meanwhile, approved a law banning ethnic studies courses amid complaints that a Mexican-American studies program in Tucson was teaching Latino students that they were oppressed by whites. A federal judge declared the law unconstitutional and blocked its enforcement in