State Board of Education again delays discussion on whether to approve new Native studies course

The State Board of Education meeting on Jan. 29, 2019. (Emree Weaver/The Texas Tribune, Emree Weaver/The Texas Tribune)

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The Texas State Board of Education once again will delay voting on whether to approve an American Indian/Native Studies class, to the disappointment of supporters who have championed the material since 2020.

The course was not on the SBOE’s agenda for its meetings next week. Advocates of the course hoped the curriculum would be addressed this month so that the material could be approved and ready for statewide adoption in the 2024-25 school year. The next opportunity for the board to review the course will not happen until its meeting in June, which would be too late for most schools to add the class this fall.

“This is the process that the state is supposed to follow when ethnic studies courses are brought forward,” said Eliza Epstein, co-facilitator of the Ethnic Studies for Texas Schools Coalition, which is advocating for the course’s adoption. “I don't think anyone's demanding that the course just be approved. They're asking for the course process to happen.”

The Grand Prairie Independent School District has piloted the Native studies course since 2021. The class is currently designated by the Texas Education Agency as an innovative course, a status that will need to be renewed after the 2024-25 school year. Other schools can also seek approval from their districts to offer the course, but many prefer to wait for official SBOE endorsement before investing resources into a new class.

Former SBOE chair Keven Ellis expressed intentions to bring up the Native studies course in the board’s January meeting, but current chair Aaron Kinsey, who was appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott in December, chose to not include it on the agenda. In a statement that month, he explained the delay was “to allow members more time to review its contents.”

"The course is not on the agenda because, after working with TEA staff, I was able to confirm that Native American Studies is available as an innovative course for any Texas public school system to offer during the 2024-25 school year,” Kinsey said in a statement this week.

The support for the Native studies class points to a larger push for ethnic studies in Texas education. In 2018, the SBOE board approved a Mexican American studies class, and in 2020, the board unanimously passed an African American studies class. Round Rock ISD piloted the state’s first Asian American studies class last year.

The delay also comes at a time when the SBOE has been shifting ideologically to the right amid debates over how children should learn about sex and race in school. Ten out of the board’s 15 current members identify as Republican. One Republican member lost her seat during last month’s primary elections and two others face a runoff next month from challengers calling for a more conservative vision for the board.

The Native studies pilot course at Grand Prairie ISD is a social studies elective for 10th to 12th graders that weaves together topics like history, science and economics. The material covers multiple tribes and nations across Texas and the U.S., such as the Lipan Apache and Alabama–Coushatta. It covers historical events as well as contemporary times, according to Janis Henderson, who is a citizen of Oklahoma's Choctaw Nation, lives in Kinsey’s district and supports the development of the new course.

“We are still here. We are not back in the 1800s when your history books come to a screeching halt,” said Hawana Huwuni Townsley, a member of the Comanche Nation, in a news conference last week. “That’s what we’re asking for this course to communicate and give to the children of this state.”

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