State Board of Education Gets an Earful About Mexican-American Studies Book

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On Tuesday morning educators and activists turned out in Austin to protest before the start of the State Board of Education meeting to get public input on the proposed Mexican-American studies textbook. But in the actual meeting, everything was very civil as educators, activists, state lawmakers and others took their turns ripping into the controversial book, Mexican American Heritage. 

The speakers didn't pull their verbal punches. 

"Mexican American Heritage is not written with integrity. It does not use primary or secondary sources. This book is insulting and offensive," Cynthia Cortez, an assistant professor of history at St. Phillip's College in San Antonio, told the board. She read aloud one of the most contentious passages in the book that compares "driven" industrialists to Mexican laborers who the textbook claimed "were not reared to put in a full day's work so vigorously." (She was the first to read this excerpt but wouldn't be the last.)

Virginia Raymond, an immigration lawyer who explained that she also holds Ph.D. degrees in English and Mexican-American studies, critiqued both the "facts" in the textbook and the writing, saying that it is "completely incoherent." "It sounds like an episode of drunk history. But it's not funny, because sometimes drunk people sober up and get a clue as to what's going on, but these people never do."

Ironically, the textbook was intended to satisfy various groups who have been pushing for the past couple of years for a Mexican-American history class.  

The resulting textbook, described as "unfixable" by numerous speakers, Mexican American Heritage, was created by Momentum Instruction, a company owned by former State Board of Education member Cynthia Dunbar. (Dunbar infamously published a book questioning whether public schools are even constitutionally allowed during her stint on the board a few years ago.) The book portrays Hispanics as lazy criminals and has been a source of ire and fierce opposition ever since it started undergoing the State Board of Education's review process earlier this year.

At the meeting, State Board of Education Chairwoman Donna Bahorich, a Houston Republican, limited each speaker with just two minutes for a statement. State senators and representatives were the first ones up to bat. (The time limit for speakers didn't apply to them.) 

“It is important to have ethnic studies that depict accurately the experiences of the people that appear in these textbooks,” Sen. Jose Rodriguez, an El Paso Democrat, told the board, noting that studies have shown accurate ethnic studies textbooks can get students more interested in their culture and in school itself.

But some of the board members were more interested in talking about Senate Bill 6, passed in 2011, that has decentralized the selection and purchase of textbooks. Now, state schools are free to select textbook and other instruction materials whether the State Board of Education has approved the materials or not. Various board members noted this and questioned state legislators about whether the law could mean that textbooks like the controversial Mexican-American studies book, could end up in classrooms without any public hearing. 

Board member Marty Rowly, an Amarillo Republican, expressed his reservations about the textbook itself, but wondered aloud whether it's possible that “unscrupulous publishers” could use SB6 as a way to dodge any public review of textbooks.  (Because apparently textbook publishers are lying in wait to sneak this stuff into public education, so we should trust the board that infamously signed off on a history textbook that claimed the whole segregation thing wasn't actually that big a deal.)

However, Board Member Marisa Perez, a San Antonio Democrat, stepped in and steered the conversation away from focusing on the law with a pointed question. “Would you agree that it's not because of SB6, but because of the racist tones of this textbook that we are here today?” she asked.

Sen. Jose Menendez, a San Antonio Democrat, nodded. “If you had a good textbook in front of us we probably wouldn't be here today," he said, and finally the focus was back on Mexican American Heritage

"We don't like this book. There are some things in this book that cannot be taken back, no matter how it's changed if it gets down to that," Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, an Austin Democrat, told the board. "This is really about how y'all have the opportunity to do the right thing. you have an opportunity when you have the vote to say whether this is acceptable for our kids or not."

Former Houston ISD school board member Juliet Stipeche, now the Education Liaison for Mayor Sylvester Turner, spoke briefly, noting Turner submitted an open letter to the State Board of Education last week opposing the textbook. As the afternoon wore on she was just one of many sounding off on the numerous flaws in the book. 

It took hours to get through state legislators and invited speakers who all addressed the board sans a time limit. The hearing went on for hours as the board tried to allow everyone who wanted a chance to address the board. The board wasn't slated to come to any conclusions by the end of the meeting, but one thing was clear: A lot of people really don't like this book. 

The publisher will be allowed to address the board about the concerns raised about the textbook in late October and then the board will vote on whether to approve the textbook in November. 

If they do approve it for some reason, SB6 may start looking like a very wise bit of legislation, since schools will be free to ignore the board.

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