Why the ‘hyphenated Americanism’ comment triggered outrage

People rally in front of the State Board of Education building last week before a preliminary vote on whether to create a statewide Mexican American studies course. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The decision by the State Board of Education to approve an elective course for Mexican-American studies in Texas high schools should have triggered triumphant celebrations among the scholars and advocates who worked for years to make the curriculum a reality. Instead, many came away feeling like they were history’s losers once more.

“Discrimination!” Marisa Perez-Diaz, a member of the board, said in a blistering statement that captured the outrage of critics.

Perez-Diaz, a Democrat from Converse who is Mexican-American, was angry that the course will not be called Mexican-American Studies, as scholars and activists had advocated. Instead, after the objections of one member, the Republican-dominated board voted to strip the name and call the course “Ethnic Studies: An Overview of Americans of Mexican Descent.”

The board member who proposed the new name, Beaumont Republican David Bradley, offered this explanation: “I find hyphenated Americanism to be divisive.”

To understand why some Texans consider that statement and the name change a slap in the face is to understand the history of Texas and how it has treated Mexican-Americans as something less than American – not as equals. It is a painful and shameful history that includes loss of rightful lands after the Mexican-American War, Jim Crow laws and systematic discrimination, separate and unequal schools, lynchings, deportations of Mexican-American citizens without due process, bigotry and signs at restaurants, parks, swimming pools and public places that told Mexican Americans they most certainly were not welcome there.

“No dogs, No Negros, No Mexicans,” the signs of Jim Crow-era segregation said.

Even in death, Mexican-Americans were not equals. In some Texas towns they were buried in separate cemeteries, as were African Americans.

But you won’t read much of that sordid history in high school classrooms in Texas, if at all. The historical Mexican-American experience is whitewashed and airbrushed out of textbooks and out of young Texans’ minds.

“To say that one does not believe in hyphenated Americans is one of the reasons we need this course,” Richard Flores, a Mexican-American studies scholar at the University of Texas, told me. “Because this entire Mexican-American community was not accepted into the American way of life.”

Flores wrote the book, “Remembering the Alamo: Memory, Modernity, and the Master Symbol,” which tells a history of the famous battle that is different from the conventional narrative taught in Texas classrooms – that brave Anglos defeated savage Mexicans there. But as Flores’ book conveys, they were not alone — Tejanos, or Mexican-Americans, fought alongside those Anglos.

Throughout history, Mexican-Americans have been called all kinds of hateful epithets. Wetbacks, greasers, beaners, cockroaches, spics – these are some. The word “Mexican” also has historically been used as a slur — President Trump did in 2016 against a U.S. district judge.

To some, stripping the Mexican-American name from the high school course is another attempt to put Mexican-Americans in their place and to dictate their identity, a throwback – setback — to the 1940s and 1950s in Texas.

Angela Valenzuela, another Mexican-American studies scholar at UT who championed the new curriculum, said she would not want her name associated with it under its new name. Her mother would never forgive her, she said, because it harkens back to Jim Crow and the scars it left.

“My mother told us (an American of Mexican descent) is what I was,” she told me. “That was all we were allowed to be then because it was Americanization full throttle.”

Noting that Latinos make up 52 percent of school-age children in Texas – the vast majority Mexican American — Valenzuela said the education board sees Mexican Americans and other Latinos as a threat.

We don’t need a Mexican-American studies course only for its value in setting the historical record straight. We need it because it can highlight Mexican-American historical contributions too and affirm Mexican-Americans’ place as valued contributors to society.

“Without our stories, the message to young people is ‘We weren’t here, we weren’t important and we are not important,” said Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, director of the Voces Oral History Project at UT, which highlights the WWII contributions of Mexican-Americans who served their country, despite facing rampant discrimination at home.

Bradley, meanwhile, was not in a conciliatory mood. He reportedly said Perez-Diaz was taking the name change personally and that opponents were “antagonizing the board,” actions that could have repercussions on the viability of the course.

Given Texas’ history, it’s easy to see how some might view that as threatening.

“We’re all Americans,” Bradley told the Houston Chronicle. “It’s a melting pot and most of the board agreed with that.”

The irony of Bradley’s statement is that in the land that was Mexico long before Texas became a state, in the face of historical bigotry and discrimination, Mexican-Americans have wanted nothing more than to stake their full and rightful claim as Americans. As equals. Though we might not see it reflected in our textbooks, history teaches us this.

 

 

 

Latinos had income gains, but not all the news is rosy

Bladimira Martinez takes notes while her daughter and business associate, Yessenia Ramirez, conducts business in Pflugerville last month. Martinez recently started her own cleaning company after years of working for others at or near minimum wage. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The headlines have been heartening lately for Latinos in Austin and across the country, at least when it comes to narrowing the income and education gaps that have dogged the nation’s largest minority group for years.

Recently, we learned that Latinos in the Austin-Round Rock metro area saw a hefty 17 percent increase in median household income from 2015 to 2016 — rising from $48,160 to $56,306, according to new census data.

RELATED: Why Austin-area Latinos saw a big boost in household incomes

Encouraging, yes, but it’s not time to get carried away just yet. It’s true that household incomes rose for Austin-area Latinos, but they still trail whites by a large margin.

Still, closing the income gap offers hope for anyone who believes in the old cliché that a rising tide lifts all boats. And for some time now in Austin, Latinos and African Americans have lagged behind whites in terms of quality of life barometers like income and educational attainment.

Attempts to close gaps led the city to launch Hispanic Quality of Life and African American Quality of Life initiatives, which I covered many years ago. The reviews were mixed. Some minority residents said they didn’t accomplish nearly enough. Some Austinites said the city should help all residents, not just certain minority groups. Regardless where you stood, many of the issues the initiatives sought to address back then are still around.

But back to the good news. Another reason to be encouraged is that there’s plenty of demographic evidence around to believe that if the Austin region will continue to prosper, the future will depend to a large part on the young and fast-growing Hispanic population.

In Travis County alone, 47 percent of the child population is Hispanic, researchers with the Community Advancement Network (CAN) found.

“When I speak to groups, I tell them, ‘That’s our future right there. That’s what the community is going to look like in 20 or 30 years,’” Raul Alvarez, who heads (CAN), told me.

Latinos already make up about 32 percent of the roughly 2 million overall population in the Austin-Round Rock metro area, according to 2016 census data. That’s no secret. What many people don’t know, however, is that demographic experts expect that the Latino population will become the largest portion of the Central Texas workforce sometime in about the next 15 years.

Such projections, however, increasingly lead to worries that Latinos will be left behind because as skill requirements for some careers rise, comparative lack of education could leave a growing share of the local Latino workforce stuck in low-wage jobs.

RELATED: The promise and the challenge of the Latino job puzzle

But there’s good news on that front, too. According to experts, one of the logical explanations behind the Latino income increase is that Latinos are reaching higher education levels.

The percentage of Texas Latinos ages 25 and older with at least a bachelor’s degree increased between 2015 and 2016, the American-Statesman reported recently.

A new report by the Pew Research Center also found that among Hispanics nationwide, the high school dropout rate is at a new low – 10 percent, continuing a decline spanning several decades. Moreover, as the Hispanic dropout rate plummeted, the share of Hispanic high school graduates who enter college rose, Pew reported.

CASTILLO: A new giving network answers why Latinos need a hand

While encouraging, the new income and education benchmarks aren’t all rosy, and pronounced disparities between minorities and whites persist.

Those figures showing the U.S. Hispanic high school dropout rate is at a new low of 10 percent? They don’t tell the full story: the Hispanic dropout rate was higher than for any other racial and ethnic group.

And though Austin Hispanics may have closed the gaps when it comes to income, they still lag far behind whites, whose median household income in 2016 was close to $74,000 – 31 percent higher than that of Latinos ($56,306) and 48 percent higher than that of African Americans (49,871).

And when income is measured another way – per capita –Hispanics in Central Texas make less than half of what Anglos on average make per year, according to the Austin Community Foundation.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that though Hispanics comprise only about a third of the overall Travis County population, they make up 55 percent of all Travis residents living in poverty, according to CAN, which keeps an annual Dashboard on its website that measures socioeconomic indicators.

It’s even worse for children. CAN researchers found that Hispanic children, although comprising 47 percent of the child population, make up 74 percent of all Travis County children living in poverty.

For Alvarez, that figure may be more troubling than anything else.

“That’s important because it says Hispanics are overrepresented in terms of family and poverty, and they’re going to face challenges that other populations are not going to face,” Alvarez told me.

In other words, there’s good news for area Latinos, but there’s much work to be done.

 

Flaws in AISD’s bond decisions show need for an independent committee

TA Brown Elementary on Friday, November 4, 2016. Unstable floor leads to cancellation of classes at Brown Elementary. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

 

Ideally, a bond package for schools would bring together diverse communities across Austin whose residents share a strong support of Austin public schools. Yet the bond package currently being considered, whose price tag is about $1 billion, has divided much of the Austin community, tearing open old wounds of classism and racism and raising new questions regarding transparency, accountability and leadership.

Clearly, the process is broken and in need of drastic change.

To that point, the Austin school district would benefit greatly from an independent bond commission made up of both supporters and skeptics to hash out the complex and often contentious priorities of a large urban district. That commission should reflect the community it serves – economically, racially, ethnically and geographically. It’s one way to move beyond the bitter politics that is driving decisions regarding the current bond package that seems headed to a November election.

In the end, whatever decisions are made still would have to go to the Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees for a vote. But right now, matters have turned toxic with a board and superintendent who have bent over backwards to accommodate well-heeled, influential Austin parents and neighborhoods at the expense of many low-income families and people of color.

That can be seen in an emerging, lopsided bond package, which supplanted some key recommendations by an advisory committee to make the bond package more geographically and equitably balanced.

Prime examples of how things have gone off the rails include the last-minute proposal for the Liberal Arts and Science Academy, whose student body is mostly white and affluent, and the elimination of a highly recommended middle school that would serve many students of color who are lower-income.

RELATED: Alberta Phillips: How Austin ISD botched decision to move an acclaimed academy.

LASA would move from the LBJ High School campus to the Eastside Memorial High School campus, displacing mostly minority and low-income students there. Eastside students would move to a new campus at the original L.C. Anderson site. In all, that would cost about $100 million.

Never mind that the LASA proposal would increase segregation, as noted by Trustee Edmund “Ted” Gordon, by increasing to 3 the number of high schools with student bodies that are “over 90 percent black and brown.”

“In each one of those high schools, we’re well over 80 percent and heading into 90 percent in terms of socioeconomically underprivileged,” said Gordon, who represents Northeast Austin.

But the dysfunction doesn’t stop there. Trustees continue to lean toward a single bond proposition, offering the lame excuse that if they gave voters, say two choices, voters might approve the less-urgent proposition and vote down the proposition that contains the district’s vital needs. In other words, voters are too dumb to discern the district’s true needs from the fluff.

We all owe gratitude to the 18 people who serve on the district’s Facilities and Bond Planning Advisory Committee. FABPAC members did their job, holding dozens of community meetings and combing through mounds of reports and information to craft a facilities master plan to be used as a blueprint for bond packages. They went about that task for 18 months, prioritizing which schools were most in need of repair, replacement and upgrades, and neighborhoods that needed new schools.

That kind of work is best done by those with a passion for public schools. But the next steps in deciding the scope, shape and timing of a bond package should be done by an independent group, which can impartially assess the district’s most urgent priorities, while at the same time gauge what taxpayers can afford.

That would be a healthy, trusted process that provides more checks and balances.

FABPAC members will tell you that in doing their work, they began with a foregone conclusion: There would be bonds. And soon. That was not debatable. The rest they have left to trustees, such as the bond package’s price tag, number of propositions and the date they appear on a ballot. Trustees are scheduled to fill in all of those blanks on Monday.

Unfortunately, that process invites the kind of manipulation of the process we’ve witnessed from Superintendent Paul Cruz and others. It was Cruz who fast-tracked LASA’s expansion and move.

RELATED: Community reactions mixed over proposed LASA move to Eastside site.

Obviously, the FABPAC did not believe LASA’s expansion rose to the level of needs at T.A. Brown Elementary School, with significant structural deficiencies. That was signaled by the FABPAC’s recommendation to insert LASA, along with a middle school for the Mueller development, in its second-tier priorities.

Yet, trustees elevated LASA, but not Mueller’s middle school. That did not sit well with Gordon, who referred to such eleventh-hour maneuvering as the “Eastside switcheroo.”

“If reinventing the urban school system means abandoning the urban areas of the city, then we’re in trouble,” Gordon said. “It can’t mean that. It has to mean a way in which the east and west can come together to create a school district which is diverse, which is equitable, and which provides all our kids with a quality education – not some kids an elite quality education, and other kids no education – all our kids a quality education.”

To achieve that goal, the Austin district needs a new business model for bond planning.

 

 

Bahorich moving education board forward; no reason to change leadership

JULY 14, 2015 - State Board of Education chair, Donna Bahorich, Houston, asks a question from staff about GED practices during the State Board of Education meeting held in Austin, Texas, on July 14, 2015. Gov. Greg Abbott appointed her to chairmanship in June 2015. (RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)
JULY 14, 2015 – State Board of Education chair, Donna Bahorich, Houston, asks a question from staff about GED practices during the State Board of Education meeting held in Austin, Texas, on July 14, 2015. Gov. Greg Abbott appointed her to chairmanship in June 2015. (RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

You might say that Donna Bahorich took an old-school approach to proving herself worthy of chairing the State Board of Education, even among some of her critics: She earned it.

That is why her confirmation by the Senate Nominations Committee on Thursday should not be in question. And why the full Senate should support Bahorich’ s reappointment as chair of the 15-member State Board of Education.

I’m not saying that state senators should not press the Houston Republican on issues, such as whether biology standards under review should be limited to the science of evolution or watered down with requirements that undermine the science.

And I’m not suggesting that senators ignore controversies the education board – that sets curriculum standards for Texas public schools and oversees the $37 billion Permanent School Fund – regularly wades into, such as its consideration of a textbook about Mexican-American history and culture. Aside from being racially-insensitive, the book contained 141 errors that scholars pointed out.

Consider this insulting passage from the book: “Stereotypically, Mexicans were viewed as lazy compared to European or American workers. Industrialists were very driven, competitive…They 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.”

With a deft hand, Bahorich steered the board through that and other such embarrassments, permitting the GOP social conservative bloc on the board to have its say – and at times throw tantrums. All while keeping her eye, and the board’s focus, on improving public schools and engaging more people in the process.

As we witnessed in the case of the textbook, “Mexican American Heritage,” the board landed on the right decision by voting unanimously not to place the book on its preferred adoption list, akin to denying it a Good Housing seal. As such, it’s unlikely that school districts will order or buy the text. She was recognized with a leadership medal from the League of United Latin American Citizens for the way she handled the textbook.

On that front and others, Bahorich has made transparency a key component of the education board’s textbook and curriculum standards review process.

For the first time, instructional materials are available online for public review prior to coming before the board for adoption. That permitted educators, community leaders and parents to weigh in on the Mexican American textbook.

“People can sit in their living rooms in their pajamas and get instructional materials instead of going to a (regional) service center to get them,” Bahorich told me.

That is a big deal, considering that elected members of the board represent individual districts of about 1.6 million people, twice the size of a state senate district with about 800,000 people.

Under Bahorich’s leadership, curriculum standards, such as those for English, Spanish language and reading, also are online for public review before going to the board for final approval. And she has put together major public forums, one dealing with educating a digital generation and the other on educating children in poverty. Those are relevant to public schools, including charters, that educate 5.5 million schoolchildren growing up in a digital world.

First elected in 2012 and reelected in November, Bahorich, 61, is not the enemy of public schools critics predicted she would be, citing her lack of experience with public schools. It’s true she home-schooled her three sons then turned to private, religious schools to fill out their education and extracurricular activities.

She gets good marks from critics for being a more collaborative chair than her GOP predecessors in that post, fostering respectful dialogue, expanding board discussions to include opposing or critical viewpoints, among other things. But she also gets her share of criticism, such as for her position — or lack of one — on public school vouchers.

Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network, a nonpartisan watchdog group that monitors and opposes right-wing agendas in education and other areas of government, said Bahorich voted against a resolution, which would have put the education board on the record opposing vouchers.

Bahorich says she has not come to a firm conclusion on vouchers or scholarships that permit parents to use public school money to pay for private school tuition. But, she added, “Nothing should be off the table.”

“We should at least talk about them and not immediately reject (vouchers),” she said. “Having no discussion is not serving children.”

Perhaps. But as I said to Bahorich, if the state is going to establish a program or pilot in which public dollars are steered to private schools through vouchers or scholarships, it must level the playing field by erecting comparable accountability standards for both, including requirements that prevent cherry-picking or dumping — pushing voucher students back to public schools after private schools have ejected them.

It’s should not be that those receiving public education money be exempt from state accountability.

There’s also a political reality for keeping Bahorich as chair. Republicans dominate the board, just as they do state government. Gov. Greg Abbott is not about to select a Democrat to chair the board and among the Republican SBOE members, Bahorich is best suited for the chairmanship.

With her, the board might not avoid controversies, but it won’t wander aimlessly in that swamp — as it did before Bahorich.