Can Colorado create a multicultural curriculum without twisting arms?

multicultural education, colorado

High schooler Tlatoani Garcia used to get kicked out of class for questioning his teacher about who discovered America. He worried he’d become just another negative statistic for brown kids growing up in the United States.

Later, his mother put him into an alternative school for young Latinos in Denver called Escuela Tlatelolco where instructors taught students how to look at history not merely through time but through generations.

“I felt like most of my friends were lost because they didn’t know where they came from, and they were learning only one side,” Garcia told the 11 lawmakers who sit on Colorado’s House education committee. Those same students who fell into habits of bad behavior, Garcia said, might not have done so if they better understood their roots. These days, while taking concurrent classes at a technical school, Garcia said one teacher told him she’s “too white” to pronounce his name correctly.

Garcia was telling his story to urge lawmakers to support a proposed bill aimed at promoting more diversity in classroom history lessons. He said he is registered to vote and will be watching what the politicians do.

Garcia was one of a handful of students and educators who spoke in favor of a bill by Thorton Democratic Rep. Joe Salazar. The bill would create a statewide panel to determine what’s currently being taught in Colorado history classes and whether lessons could better include the historical perspectives and accomplishments of blacks, Latinos, American Indians, and Asian Americans.

No one testified against the measure during three hours of debate Monday. The bill cleared the committee with bipartisan support and now awaits another hearing in the House Appropriations Committee.

From the mountains to the plains, school curriculums across Colorado’s 178 different districts are already supposed to teach Colorado and U.S. history in a “culturally competent” fashion, Salazar said. But what he’s been hearing around the state is that classroom instruction is “sorely lacking.” His bill, if passed, would create a diverse committee that would meet with school districts and find out what’s being taught. The panel would then make curriculum recommendations to the districts that would be “culturally competent and culturally relevant,” he said. Local school districts could accept or deny those recommendations.

A handful of other students of color testified during Monday’s hearing about how they feel their ancestors are getting less credit than whites in Colorado public schools. Two young women spoke about how the Escuela Tlatelolco alternative school opened their eyes. They said what they learned in regular middle school “was a lie,” and was too focused on white culture.

Sharon Bailey, representing the Colorado Black Roundtable community group, told lawmakers that while state law says students must complete an exam about civic life in Colorado, there’s no oversight of what’s actually being taught.

“As a nation we deal with issues of race like we deal with the weather,” she said. “We only talk about race when it becomes severe or when there’s something … that requires our immediate attention.”

Society, Bailey said, is becoming increasingly chaotic, confusing and divided. Racial and class lines are being drawn. She said publishers of textbooks must be held accountable for the information in their pages.

But that would be beyond the purview of the bill lawmakers debated before it cleared its first legislative hurdle. Republicans had questions about whether the new law would create centralized mandates for education since they favor more local control by individual districts.

Salazar said his bill wouldn’t mandate anything. It merely would create a regionally and culturally diverse committee with buy-in from unions, school boards and groups like History Colorado. There are some in the school system, he said, who believe students shouldn’t learn anything about communities of color in U.S. history. There should be no excuse not to teach that, he said. A committee established by his bill, he explained, would help identify certain content that should be included in classroom instruction, making sure contributions of people of color to society are highlighted in a way that is acceptable to them.

“This is having buy in from all communities in terms of recommended content,” Salazar said.

While Republicans on the committee questioned whether the new law, if passed, would mean more statewide government involvement in local school districts, at least one lawmaker said he generally supported the idea of more multiculturalism taught in public schools.

Monument Republican Rep. Paul Lundeen, who chairs the House Education Committee and is former chair of the state board of education, said he believes “the good, the bad and ugly,” should be taught in U.S. history classes — especially the ugly. He thanked Salazar for promoting the conversation, but ultimately voted against the bill, along with three other Republicans.

Meanwhile, a Salazar-sponsored resolution to declare the week of Feb. 2-8 as Chicano History Week in Colorado passed the Republican-controlled Senate and Democratically controlled House by a large margin and with bi-partisan support. Five House Republicans voted against it. They were: Reps. Tim Leonard, Lori Saine, Steve Humphrey, Patrick Neville, and Justin Everett.

The resolution states in part: “The people of this state must recognize that the cultural and intellectual development of the proud Chicano community includes not only American accomplishments but also accomplishments that predate the first English settlements in the United States by centuries.”

Photo credit: Bill Benzon, Creative Commons, Flickr