The proposed textbook, "Mexican American Heritage," was produced by Momentum Instruction.
The proposed textbook, "Mexican American Heritage," was produced by Momentum Publishing. Credit: Composite / Courtesy

Educators and officials called it a textbook case of racism. Academics deemed it a “political trojan horse” littered with inaccuracies. The publisher denounced allegations as “slanderous, libelous, and defamatory.

On Friday, a turbulent chapter in the battle to control Texas’s historical narrative came to a tentative end, as the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) omitted controversial high school textbook, Mexican-American Heritagefrom its list of 492 approved materials for the 2017-2018 school year.

The move came following a contentious public hearing Wednesday, in which 36 community members spoke out against publisher Cynthia Dunbar’s portrayal of the textbook as “free from error.”

“The board is committed to making sure our students receive historically accurate materials in the telling of your story,” Board Chair Donna Bahorich told hundreds of Hispanic Texans attending the hearing. “Everyone deserves to have their story told in a fair and accurate matter.”

Proposed by publisher Momentum Instruction in response to the SBOE’s 2015 call for ethnic studies instructional materials, the textbook received a scathing, 54-page review, assembled by seven university scholars and a history teacher.

Calling the textbook “a prolific misrepresentation of facts” and “a polemic attempting to masquerade as a textbook,” the report states that editors Jamie Riddle and Valarie Angle “failed to meet the professional standards and guiding principles for the preparation of a textbook worthy of our teachers and youth in Texas classrooms.”

The report, organized by Trustee Ruben Cortez (D2), highlights 141 of the more than 400 errors identified by researchers. While the report describes a number of errors as simply at odds with well-accepted historical facts and methodologies, others portrayed indigenous and Mexican people as inferior and “menacing or un-American.”

In one passage, researchers say the textbook reinforces repressive stereotypes, comparing Western efficiency with descriptions of Mexican laziness and failing to reference the “vast literature on stereotypes to offer a critique of the demeaning and unsubstantiated anti-Mexican views in history.”

The textbook states that, “stereotypically, Mexicans were viewed as lazy compared to European or American workers. Industrialists …were used to their workers putting in a full day’s work, quietly and obediently, and respecting rules, authority, and property. In contrast, Mexican laborers were not reared to put in a full day’s work so vigorously. There was a cultural attitude of ‘mañana,’ or ‘tomorrow,’ when it came to high-gear production. It was also traditional to skip work on Mondays, and drinking on the job could be a problem.”

In another section, the textbook described Chicanos as adopting “a revolutionary narrative that opposed Western civilization and wanted to destroy this society.”

At Wednesday’s hearing, Dunbar, a previous member of the SBOE, claimed to have corrected “all 29 factual errors” noted by the Texas Education Agency, making no mention of the hundreds more identified by researchers.

“As a publishing company, (we) really, really have listened attentively to the public comments,” the Republican activist told the board. “We have taken those into consideration, we have made numerous additions to content change, and we’ve tried to be very proactive in our efforts to be responsive.”

Momentum Instruction’s legal firm also sent a letter to Chairwoman Donna Bahorich “strongly hinting” at legal action, according to SBOE spokesperson Debbie Ratcliffe. The letter rejects errors identified by what it describes as far-left, revisionist historians, claiming they “are not verified factual errors, but disagreements with the book’s viewpoint.”

The letter concludes that, “SBOE must treat Mexican American Heritage the same way it treats numerous other books the TEA is recommending for adoption … It may not reject it based upon subjective political ideology or a ‘heckler’s veto’”

Several key political figures, however, backed the board’s move.

“As a father with three school-age kids, it is encouraging that common sense ruled the day and a bipartisan, unanimous vote reaffirmed our commitment to teaching facts, not dangerous stereotypes,” State Sen. José Menéndez (D-26) stated in a Friday news release. “Our students deserve an honest and factual retelling of our shared history. The rejection of this offensive and error-ridden textbook shows that our education system is based on inclusivity and tolerance.”

While state funding for textbooks used to be limited to those approved by the SBOE, Ratcliffe said the approval process now acts more as a “good housekeeping seal of approval, because a lot of our districts are so small that they don’t have the staff to review a book in great depth.”

This means districts can still adopt Mexican-American Heritage, and, as Dunbar repeatedly stated on Wednesday, submitting to the transparency of the review process was actually optional.

To many Hispanics, who make up 52% of all public school students in Texas, the mere consideration of the textbook’s approval represented the very biases ethnic studies is designed to address. Hispanics and other minorities, many argue, are already grossly underrepresented in the narratives woven by Texas and U.S. History books.

The battle over representation in curricular content goes back to the 1970s, when civil rights advocates in many states pushed for ethnic studies programs as a way to teach minorities their history in addition to that of historical majority groups. Many have argued that failing to provide these narratives alienates minorities from the educational system, contributing to lower academic performance among blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans. In recent years, education reform efforts have increasingly focused on culturally responsive teaching as a research-based means of engaging and investing in students.

In Arizona, some studies demonstrated significantly higher graduation rates among students who took Mexican-American Studies courses. However, in 2010, that same program became a flashpoint for racial tensions as Arizona’s Republican lawmakers banned it, deeming it seditious and racist against whites.

For many Texans, Mexican-American Heritage represents a similar fight between a historical account that traditionally underrepresented minority groups and a revisionary narrative highlighting the nation’s diversity, with its own potential for a racial and political bias. In many ways, it’s a conflict that took center stage in the 2016 election, as some analysts believe President-elect Donald Trump’s racially-charged rhetoric helped garner a voter base once allied with the more pluralistic Democratic platform.

As Mexican-American Heritage was the only textbook proposed in response to the SBOE’s call for Mexican-American materials, the board again called publishers to submit ethnic studies materials next year. The materials will support a high school elective, special topics in social studies, used in many districts as an ethnic studies course, with teachers often compiling materials on their own. As Ratcliffe put it, as an elective, the course hasn’t generated the kind of market demand courses like U.S. History and U.S. Government has. With proposals in the Texas legislature to create a mandatory ethnic studies course, however, that could change.

In the meantime, a number of Texans will be keeping a close eye on any new materials proposed.

In addition to approving instructional materials, the board voted to provide $2.46 billion from the Permanent School Fund (PSF) to Texas public schools over the next two years, an increase of $354 from the current biennium. This will raise the per-student allocation from its current rate of approximately $196 to $218, an 11% increase.

Daniel Kleifgen

Daniel Kleifgen graduated from Cornell University with a bachelor’s degree in English and philosophy. A native of Pittsburgh, Pa., he came to San Antonio in 2013 as a Teach For America corps member.