A bill introduced last month by California Assemblyman Luis Alejo (D-Salinas) would require the state's Department of Education to develop a model for implementing a standardized, statewide ethnic studies curriculum for high schools.
Although controversies over Mexican-American studies have roiled conservatives in Southwestern states, Alejo's bill could put California on the path to adopting one of the most ambitious ethnic studies program for public schools in the country.
Latinos are the largest ethnic group in California schools by far, making up 53 percent of the student body, according to the California Department of Education. They are followed by non-Hispanic whites, at 26 percent, and Asians, at 9 percent.
But though people of color make up the solid majority of California's schools, ethnic studies proponents say their history and culture remain largely absent from classrooms and textbooks.
"We have probably one of the most diverse student populations in the country," Alejo told The Huffington Post. "We recognize those unique values and history, language and literatures -- all of that should be included in California’s high school curriculum."
Alejo, who majored in Chicano studies at the University of California, Berkeley before going on to law school, has considered ethnic studies a priority for more than a decade. As an intern for Assemblyman Manny Diaz in 2001, Alejo worked on a bill similar to the more recent one, but then-Gov. Gray Davis (D) vetoed it. The 2014 bill would give the state's Department of Education $125,000 to identify model ethnic studies programs, standards and best practices.
Announced just weeks before demographers predict Latinos will overtake non-Hispanic whites as California's largest ethnic group, Alejo's vision contrasts sharply with the experience of other states where Mexican-American studies has proven controversial.
The Arizona legislature passed a law in 2010 designed to shut down a progressive Mexican-American studies curriculum that conservatives accused of breeding resentment against whites at majority-Latino schools in Tucson. Independent researchers found that the classes improved student achievement, and a state-commissioned audit recommended expanding the courses, saying they boosted critical thinking.
Students of the dismantled classes filed a lawsuit saying the Arizona law was unconstitutional, but a federal judge's ruling last year largely upheld the law. The decision was appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The controversy over Mexican-American studies continued to spread beyond Arizona. Last year, in New Mexico, conservative state Rep. Nora Espinoza -- herself Latina -- excoriated several books by Hispanic authors that had been forbidden from classrooms in Tucson because they belonged to the banned Mexican-American studies curriculum. Espinoza called the works "extremely racist and hate books," according to a report from KRQE.
The books, including works by the Brazilian educational philosopher Paulo Freire and the Chicano poet Corky Gonzalez, are commonly taught in universities across the United States.
Educators and activists in Texas have pressed for the State Board of Education to design statewide Mexican-American Studies courses in recent months, noting that half of the state's nearly 5 million public school students are Latino.
"What most Americans might not realize is that the fate of everyone's education and everyone's freedom of speech is on the line,” Tony Diaz, a co-founder of the pro-ethnic studies movement Librotraficante, told HuffPost in an email. "Although Anglos might not feel the sting of discrimination inherent in these attacks on ethnic studies, this is also an attempt to turn colleges and high schools into finishing schools for corporations."
Activists in Texas have yet to convince the head of the SBOE, Barbara Cargill, who says the issue should be left to individual schools to implement.
Alejo says he wants to see California take a different approach.
"In light of what's happening in other states, I thought this was a good time to bring this issue forward," Alejo said.
Rodolfo Acuña, a professor of Chicano studies at California State University Northridge and author of one of the discipline's classic texts, Occupied America, said he doesn't anticipate much opposition to the idea in California, but remained skeptical that it would garner widespread support. Over the course of his career, Acuña says he's worked on at least a dozen attempts to extend ethnic studies to public schools, but lack of support from legislators condemned those efforts to failure.
"[Latino legislators] have very rarely raised their voices when we're talking about discrimination," Acuña told HuffPost. "When we're talking about discrimination, when we're talking about curriculum, you can't find them."
Despite his doubts, Acuña said he hoped to see Alejo's efforts succeed.
"I think knowledge is good and it doesn't have any borders," Acuña said. "But I also think that when you have 53 million Latinos in the United States and they're one of the largest blocs of Spanish-speaking people in the whole world, it's stupid not to know anything about us."