When Texas students campaigned for a more diverse history course, they got a lesson in politics
At 13, Ayaan Moledina has come to expect the once-a-year mention of his religion when his social studies class focuses on the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“It’s all about how these were Islamic terrorists, killing in the name of Allah, but they did not represent the values that I am taught in my mosque every day,” said Ayaan, a Pakistani American student in the Round Rock Independent School District.
Texas classrooms’ lack of any deeper discussion about Islam and the contributions of Asians has spurred the eighth grader to action. After all, Asians are the fastest-growing population in the state.
So over the summer, Ayaan began pushing for the State Board of Education, the state’s authority on what gets taught in public school classrooms, to be more inclusive — and comprehensive — when discussing Muslims and Islam.
Last month, Ayaan and other students like 18-year-old Zoya Haq, a Pakistani American who attends school in Dallas, believed Texas officials were listening. At an SBOE meeting on Aug. 1, these two Asian American teenagers vouched for new social studies proposals that included an Asian American ethnic studies course, the first of its kind in Texas, and had more mentions of Asian contributions to America such as Larry Itliong, a Filipino American labor organizer, who worked alongside César Chávez, the Mexican American labor leader and civil rights activist.
But their hopes were short-lived. On Sept. 2, the state board opted to delay a vote on any social studies course updates until 2025 after facing political pressure from conservative lawmakers and parents, who claimed that the proposed updates were influenced by critical race theory — the college-level discourse that examines the impact of systemic racism — and didn’t have enough “American exceptionalism” or Christianity in them.
“I feel helpless,” Ayaan said. “Besides going and testifying, what can I do?”
Haq said the board’s decision was “heartbreaking.” She said having students seeing themselves provides a sense of belonging in the classroom.
“There are so many Asian American students who are going through the system every year and this can really, like, shape their futures and shape their self-identity and self-esteem,” she said.
The board’s decision to delay the update came on Sept. 2, two months before the November election, in which all 15 seats of the State Board of Education are up for grabs. Several Republican challengers are campaigning on a platform against critical race theory, heightening worries that when the board takes up the social studies curriculum again, the process will be politicized. Overall, there are 33 candidates gunning for a seat on the board. There are six Republican incumbents seeking reelection. Two Republican members on the board, Jay Johnson and Sue Melton-Malone, lost their primaries to candidates promising to get critical race theory out of classrooms — even though it is not taught in Texas public schools.
The term “critical race theory” has been used by conservatives as a catch-all phrase to include anything about race taught or discussed in public secondary schools. Conservatives at local school boards spent an unprecedented amount of money and won elections this past spring based on their opposition to CRT.
One current member, Republican Matt Robinson, decided against running for reelection because he didn’t think he could beat an anti-CRT candidate who is now running for his seat.
“I could tell that I wasn’t gonna win reelection in the Republican primary,” Robinson said. “The State Board of Education moved quite a bit to the right in the last two or three years and it’s just responded to how the Republican Party in Texas is.”
The political fight
For the past year, the state board has been in the process of updating the social studies curriculum for the state’s 5.5 million students of all grades. Education and history experts come up with a new curriculum about every decade. The state education board has final say on what will change.
Board members had anticipated updating the social studies curriculum by the end of the year. But that was before a flood of emails and calls from conservatives asking the board members to delay the process.
For decades, conservative Christians have monitored and lobbied against more diverse or comprehensive classroom instruction both as advocates before the board and as elected members. Most recently, between 2006 and 2010, a Christian conservative bloc on the state board, led by Don McLeroy, a former member, successfully passed Christian ideals into the curriculum, such as questioning evolution and inserting the biblical figure Moses into history classes.
Carisa Lopez, senior political director at the Texas Freedom Network, which has fought for more inclusive classroom materials since the group’s inception in 1995, said the board missed an opportunity to show people that it wouldn’t give in to misinformation and partisan politics.
“Texas students are going to be the ones to pay the price,” Lopez said.
While some observers sense a shift further to the right on the state education board, Republican board members insist political pressure did not influence delaying the social studies decision. They say that they felt some of the content proposed was not age-appropriate and they wanted to keep the current course schedule of requiring Texas history in the fourth and seventh grades. The proposals before the board this summer would have eliminated the current schedule.
“We can now use the delay to hear from Texas educators, parents [and] experts,” Republican member Will Hickman said.
Current board member Pam Little, a Republican, said her vote was not swayed by political pressure. Instead, she thought the drafts were inappropriate in certain areas. Little pointed out that in fifth grade, children would have to learn about the Crusades, something she says isn’t age-appropriate and heavy material to get through.
The other issue for her was that there were no dedicated years for Texas history, something her constituents were concerned about, she said.
“I don’t want to say it was politically motivated,” Little said. “I would rather say it was parent-motivated and educator-motivated.”
But Robinson, the lame duck Republican board member, believes his GOP colleagues voted in favor of the delay to curry favor with the Republican Party and more conservative activists, who have shown they can mobilize voters.
“The eight people who voted to delay, it was for only one reason and that's because they were getting a tremendous, huge pushback from the far right,” he said.
Georgina Pérez, an outgoing Democrat on the board, said she doesn’t understand the endgame for the conservatives calling for the delay. Pérez doesn’t believe the move was politically fueled as Republicans still outnumber Democrats on the board, and they would have amended the drafts however they liked.
“At what point do people start saying the State Board of Education refuses to do its job?” she said.
The push for inclusion
A lot of the discussion about what K-12 students in Texas should be required to read is conducted by adults. But this year, students like Ayaan joined those conversations by attending hearings in Austin. Ayaan was cheered by the fact that two new elective courses on Asian American Studies and American Indian/Native Studies were major additions to this year’s social studies update.
Also on the table? Replacing the word “internment” with “incarceration” when discussing how Japanese Americans were forced from their homes and detained by the U.S. government after the Pearl Harbor attack during World War II. But this change, like the addition of the Asian American studies course, is delayed.
Lily Trieu, interim executive director of Asian Texans for Justice, a nonprofit fighting discrimination against Asian Americans, said the board’s decision to postpone the social studies update surprised her, especially after hearing from Asian American youth.
“We’re literally failing kids every day that we don’t update the curriculum,” she said.
Trieu said the way to combat stereotypes and hate crimes based on race or religion is to have an inclusive curriculum, especially after the rise in the physical and verbal attacks on Asians nationwide seen during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It's life and death for the broader community,” she said. “The effort to get Asian American history in classrooms is also a response to the rise in anti-Asian hate and violence all across the country.”
For now, the Asian American studies course is in limbo. One way it could make it into students’ hands is if it is made a part of the Texas Education Agency’s Innovative Courses program. That way, a school district can try it out and it could eventually be adopted statewide.
“This is the part that’s most heartbreaking,” Trieu said. “We’re talking about entire generations of kids who themselves came to Austin and said to their elected officials ‘We want this’ and no one listened.”
For Ayaan, the 13-year-old from Austin, the decision continues to baffle him.
“It’s so confusing that we are living in a time where learning about each other and empathy is something that can be considered controversial,” Ayaan said.
Disclosure: Texas Freedom Network has been a financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.