Demonstrators at Texas Board of Education hearing. Credit: Texas Freedom Network
By Sabrina Holcomb
Critics consider a new Mexican American Heritage textbook so dangerous, hundreds of people braved the Texas heat to speak out against its adoption at a Texas Board of Education hearing.
The proposed textbook has offended and outraged activists who say the book is so riddled with factual errors, key omissions, and blatantly racist statements it has no place in any classroom.
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If this textbook is adopted, say concerned educators, students will “learn” that Mexican American workers are lazy, Mexican-American labor leaders wanted to destroy American society, and Mexican American people are cultural separatists—and that’s just a start.
“When you are a young person and you read a book that says people like you are lazy and uneducated and bad for society, you internalize that,” says Montserrat Garibay, Vice President of Education Austin and an early childhood teacher. “That’s what your friends are reading about you. It denigrates you as a person, and perpetuates institutional racism.”
Over half of Texas’ five million students are Latino, and the majority of them are Mexican American, leading some educators to advocate for a more inclusive curriculum that incorporates Mexican American history—a commonsense approach they say, given research that shows students who take ethnic studies courses perform better on state tests and are more likely to graduate from high school.
Instead of implementing an inclusive curriculum or full ethnic studies program, however, the Texas Board of Education called for publishers to submit textbooks for an optional social studies course. The sole submission, Mexican American Heritage—written by a publisher who had no subject matter expertise—provoked an incredulous backlash when the board released a sample.
“Over 140 errors have been identified in this book already,” says Education Austin President Ken Zarifis, “yet a spokesperson for the publishing company questioned having scholars review it. That statement stunned me. People who deny healthy scholarship shouldn’t be making decisions about our kids.”
A broad coalition of scholar-activists and organizations, including Education Austin and the Texas State Teachers Association, have organized against the adoption—coordinating scholarly reviews, holding meetings and press conferences, and circulating an electronic petition that has secured over 10,000 signatures.
Coalition members and students, concerned about the negative impact of a book that “distorts history,” showed up in force at the Board of Education hearing last week, where over 100 people signed up to speak. They and other stakeholders must wait until November to hear the school board’s decision—a choice that could reverberate beyond Texas.
In the world of school textbooks, Texas is the giant in the room—a large and profitable market that exerts a powerful influence on the content of textbooks throughout the country. It’s not the first time the Texas Board of Education has been in the news. In fact, the publisher of Mexican American Heritage is a former member of the Board who once said that sending kids to public school is like “throwing them into the enemy’s flames.”
Despite an uphill climb, some educators have persevered, heartened by the “movement atmosphere” they say has taken hold in Texas and other areas of the country—such as California, which just passed a landmark bill ordering a model ethnic studies course for all state high schools.
“I can’t think of any time since the late 60s and early 70s the activism surrounding this issue has been so prominent,” affirms art professor and movement leader Juan Tejeda, who spoke at the schoolboard hearing along with other stakeholders. “We’re asking the Board to make the right decision in November.”
This issue goes beyond November and this textbook, says Ken Zarifis. “The salient question is how do you tell the history of all the people who make up this nation? Why are we scared to acknowledge the contributions others have made,” asks Zarifis. “When I taught 8th grade language arts, my kids were thirsty to hear their stories in the classroom. Why would we deny them that?” The only reason I can think of is we don’t want them to feel empowered by their heritage and the real story of those who came before them.”