Texas Board Votes To Change Rule on Texts’Treatment of Evolution

By Anne Bridgman — April 25, 1984 4 min read

In an action that could affect the way the nation’s biology textbooks are written, the Texas State Board of Education this month repealed its 10-year-old rule requiring that textbooks describe evolution as “only one of several explanations of the origins of humankind.”

The rule also required that descriptions of evolution be written in a manner “not detrimental to the other theories of origin.”

Instead, the board voted to ap-prove a provision stating that “theories should be clearly distinguished from fact and presented in an objective educational manner.”

The votes came during an April 14 “emergency” meeting of the board in response to Texas Attorney General Jim Mattox’s ruling last month that the 1974 regulation was unconstitutional. Mr. Mattox maintained that the evolution rule “can be explained only as a response to pressure from creationists” and was in violation of the First and 14th Amendments. (See Education Week, March 21, 1984.)

People for the American Way, a civil-liberties advocacy group, had threatened to sue the board if it did not change the proclamation. Opinions issued by the attorney general, because they are interpretations of law, traditionally have the force of law unless challenged in court.

‘Turning Point in Education’

Calling the 27-member board’s voice vote--which produced only one audible dissent--"a critical turning point in American educa-tion,” Tony Podesta, executive director of paw, suggested it would have a great impact on publishers. “No longer will the textbook-publishing industry be bound by rules that have been used to promote a narrow religious viewpoint,” he said.

Texas is the largest purchaser of textbooks in the United States. The state spent $64 million in 1982 for the state’s 1,150 districts, according to the Texas Education Agency.

Critics of the state’s evolution rule have charged that publishers target their books to the profitable Texas market and that because it is economically unfeasible to print two versions of a book, students in other states receive the same material.

“The textbooks, which will be in use across the nation for the next six to eight years, will have to be evaluated in light of the action by the Texas state board,” said Michael Hudson, director of paw’s Texas office.

The board’s policy shift came seven months before it was scheduled to adopt biology textbooks for the first time since 1967. Preliminary versions of biology texts were scheduled to arrive in Texas last weekend. Those books, paw officials noted, do not reflect the repealed guidelines and may have to be rewritten to comply with the board’s vote.

Gerald Skoog, a professor of education at Texas Tech University who has analyzed the coverage of evolution in 120 textbooks, said the vote sends out a different kind of message to both the biology teachers of Texas and the publishers than the messages that have been going out.

But Mr. Skoog noted that market forces outside of Texas have contributed to “dramatic decreases” in the amount of coverage given to evolution in the last 10 years. “Texas is not in this alone,” he noted. ''Texas hasn’t adopted any [biology] textbooks since 1975-76 and there have [still] been dramatic changes.”

‘Full Support’

“I am in full support of the board’s action,” said board chairman Joe Kelly Butler. “I think the board addressed the mandate of the attorney general.”

“I think that the publishers will feel that they’re at liberty now to discuss theories like the theory of evolution,” said Mary Helen Burlanga, a board member who approved the repeal. "[Because] theory will be distinguished from fact, they’ll feel a bit more free about writing on theories such as the theory of evolution.”

Ms. Burlanga said board members will receive review copies of the biology textbooks in the next month. “If we don’t like the way that something is presented or if [the publishers] deleted some things, well, the publishers will have to go back and make changes,” she said.

Vote of Confidence

Following the board’s repeal vote, Ms. Burlanga called for Mr. Butler’s resignation as chairman. She said that her action was not related specifically to the evolution vote but to Mr. Butler’s “leadership by intimidation,” adding: “Several of us felt that it was time for the chairman to end these types of tactics ... he doesn’t allow us to discuss issues freely and [that] sometimes cuts off board members’ participation.”

“If people were not intimidated and forced to vote a certain way, you would see a completely different board of education,” Ms. Burlanga said. “I think the children of this state deserve that.”

Mr. Butler, maintaining that he did not want to continue to serve as chairman if it was not the wish of a majority of members, called for a vote of confidence following the evolution vote. Ms. Burlanga and four others voted against the chairman, 19 members voted for him, one abstained, and two were absent.

Mr. Butler, who has served as chairman for 10 years, is up for re-election in January 1985.

A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 1984 edition of Education Week as Texas Board Votes To Change Rule on Texts’Treatment of Evolution