School & District Management

Standards Debate Puts Texas Board in Hot Seat

By Erik W. Robelen — June 07, 2010 10 min read
Mary Helen Berlanga, a Democrat on the Texas school board, shows her frustration at the volume of amendments during a meeting last month.

You don’t have to be an education policy wonk to have heard a little about the goings-on at the Texas board of education lately.

The 15-member elected body drew national attention as a bloc of staunch conservatives largely succeeded in putting its stamp on a revised set of social studies standards. The debate was marked by tussles over such matters as the separation of church and state, the representation of minority figures and the role of discrimination in U.S. history, and, more broadly, whether the school board’s conservatives were seeking to infuse the standards with a particular political ideology.

The voting may be over, but the debate continues, and questions remain about the future of the standards, and of the board itself.

Bill White, the 2010 Democratic candidate for governor, is among those calling for the standards to be revisited next year. At that time, the board will have at least four new members because of retirements and primary defeats, with two of its most outspoken conservatives vacating their seats. Some observers suggest, based on the recent Texas primaries, that the influence of the board’s social conservatives may be diminished come January.

Meanwhile, some Democratic state lawmakers who are upset by the board’s actions say they will seek either to rein in its authority over academic standards and textbook adoptions or abolish the panel altogether.

“This used to be a little sleepy corner of government that not a lot of people paid attention to,” said Dan Quinn, the communications director for the Texas Freedom Network, which has been a fierce critic of the board. “Now, I think a lot of people are paying attention to how much damage this board can do when it’s under the control of political extremists.”

But Jonathan M. Seinz, the director of legislative affairs at the Liberty Institute, a Plano, Texas-based organization that backs the new standards, says criticism of them is “way overblown.”

The new standards reflect “common sense,” he said. “Any time you tell the complete story, the accurate story of history, some people are not going to be happy.”

Leaving such debates aside, arguably the biggest obstacle for the board in getting its standards into classrooms isn’t politics—it’s money. Texas is facing a big deficit, estimated at close to $20 billion. That shortfall has led state officials to postpone ordering new science textbooks. New social studies books might not reach schools until 2014 or 2015 at the earliest.

“Anything that isn’t funded in this [next legislative] session just makes the queue for textbooks a little bit longer for future sessions,” said David Anderson, a Texas lobbyist and former curriculum director at the state education agency. “Every time you bump science, you also bump social studies.”

Hundreds of Amendments

The Texas school board on May 21 gave final approval to the new social studies standards in a series of party-line votes of 9-5, with the exception of a unanimous 14-0 tally for economics. (One of the 10 Republicans was absent.)

The votes came after intensive debate at meetings in January, March, and May. In all, the board considered some 500 amendments, according to the Texas Education Agency, though a count of how many passed was not available.

The initial drafts the board worked from were devised by state-appointed writing teams—including teachers, academics, and others—who worked in collaboration with a set of “expert reviewers” named by the board. This was the first revision to the standards since 1997 and follows rewrites in other subjects, including English/language arts and science.

The effort has drawn interest around the country not only because of the political controversy as such, but also because the standards will guide the state’s adoption of new textbooks. Given the size of the Texas market, the state’s work is seen as influencing the textbooks many other states and school districts use. (“Texas’ Influence Over Textbook Content Could Shift With Changes in the Market,” April 28, 2010.)

The board’s work on science standards in 2009 also generated political heat, amid sharp debates over the teaching of evolution. (“Retooled Texas Standards Raise Unease Among Science Groups,” April 8, 2009.)

Social conservatives on the board have said one goal in revising the social studies standards was to balance a perceived liberal bias in the presentation of history, but critics contend that the conservatives are promoting a right-wing agenda. They note that the board was not exactly dominated by liberals when the standards were last approved. At that time, the board had nine Republicans and six Democrats.

The conservatives succeeded in adding a range of amendments during this year’s debate. One measure adopted in January calls on schools to describe the “conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s,” including the roles played by the activist Phyllis Schlafly, the Moral Majority, and congressional Republicans’ 1994 Contract with America. A change passed in March tells students to consider the “unintended consequences” of the Great Society programs of the 1960s, affirmative action, and Title IX, the federal law on sex discrimination in education.

At the final meeting in May, the board adopted GOP amendments that, for example, encourage high school students to question the principle of church-state separation and to evaluate efforts by global organizations such as the United Nations “to undermine U.S. sovereignty.”

Many Critics

The board’s actions have come under fire from a fairly diverse range of individuals and groups, from the Texas State Teachers Association and hundreds of historians to former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, who served under President George W. Bush and is a former superintendent of the Houston schools.

The conservative-leaning Dallas Morning News editorial board, criticized elements of the new standards in a May 27 editorial and called for the board to revisit them in January.

“To be clear, we’re not asking for a wholesale rewrite,” the editorial said. “You can read through page after page of the new standards and find nothing objectionable. In fact, there are many common-sense parts. But then you get to points like the one playing down the separation of church and state. Or the intense favoring of studying conservative organizations or figures over liberal ones. Or contrasting Jefferson Davis’ speeches to Abraham Lincoln’s.”

Six of nine members of a committee of educators who helped craft the high school U.S. history standards issued a letter just before the May meeting, voicing their “collective disgust” with the changes board members had already made to their handiwork.

“We feel that the [board’s] biased and unfounded amendments undercut our attempt to build a strong, balanced, and diverse set of standards,” the letter said.

But David Bradley, a Republican board member, argues that the writing teams introduced problems of their own that the board needed to address, such as removing Christmas from one standard. (Christmas was deleted from a list of examples of religious holidays for a world geography and cultures class; Easter was retained.)

“It was a good process,” Mr, Bradley said in an interview. “We listened to experts, we had writing teams, and ultimately the 15-member board exercised its proper role and responsibility in defining the final document.”

As to charges of a politicization of the standards, he said: “It’s in the eye of the beholder. Is it politicized? Apparently 10 members of the board were representing their [constituents] from one perspective. ... Ten years ago, the shoe was on the other foot.”

“We have not overreached,” maintained outgoing GOP board member Don McLeroy in an interview. “The only way you could be upset with our standards is if you’re upset with clearly presenting America’s Founding Fathers, founding values, and the free-enterprise system.”

‘A Political Circus’?

Mr. White, a former mayor of Houston, has made the standards, and the board itself, a campaign theme in his bid to unseat Gov. Perry in the November election. The Republican-led board, he said recently, made “a political circus” out of the standards debate.

The Perry campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Mr. White has indicated that, if elected governor, he would designate a new chair for the board and encourage that person to reopen the social studies standards.

But without a win by Mr. White, observers say a Republican-controlled board with a chair named by Gov. Perry is unlikely to revisit the document. And Mr. White seems to face an uphill battle in Texas, where a Democrat hasn’t won statewide office since 1994.

“He’s a serious contender, but he’s certainly an underdog,” said Richard W. Murray, a professor at the University of Houston who studies Texas politics.

Even if the standards are not reopened, some analysts say the board itself is poised to see changes that could alter its political dynamic, because of retirements and upsets in the primary.

For one, Mr. McLeroy, a leading voice for social conservatives, was narrowly defeated in March by moderate Republican Thomas Ratliff, a lobbyist and the son of Bill Ratliff, a former GOP lieutenant governor and state senator.

In his campaign, Mr. Ratliff said the board’s social conservatives were pursuing a political agenda in rewriting state standards, and don’t trust local educators.

“There are too many members of the current state board who view educators as part of the problem, not part of the solution,” he said in an interview.

Also, the candidate that retiring Republican Cynthia Dunbar and fellow conservatives on the board had endorsed to take her seat lost an April runoff to Marcia Farney.

Observers say it’s not clear exactly what approach Ms. Farney, a former teacher who describes herself as a “common-sense conservative,” would bring, but some speculate that she could prove a less reliable vote for conservatives.

Calvin C. Jillson, an expert on Texas politics and a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said the primary results are likely to shift the board’s political balance, in which social conservatives, seen as holding seven of 15 seats, have proved a dominant force.

“We will see some movement in a moderate direction,” he said, but the board “will still be Republican-dominated, will be conservative.”

“When one group on the board goes from a sure seven votes to a sure five, that does make a difference,” added Mr. Anderson, the Texas lobbyist.

But Mr. Bradley from the board said the changes may not amount to much. He notes that the general election looms, and suggests one of the Democratic incumbents may be vulnerable to a GOP challenger.

“Our critics can’t live a day without hope,” he said.

‘Lawyers and Dentists’

Still, more change is on the horizon for the board. In 2011, Texas must redraw its voting districts, including those for the state board, to reflect the latest U.S. Census data. Mr. Murray from the University of Houston suggests that action may disadvantage social conservatives, as the areas heavily populated by such constituents have grown little, while the urban and Hispanic population has grown rapidly.

In any case, all 15 members will be up for re-election in 2012 once redistricting takes effect.

Meanwhile, some Democratic state lawmakers who have been at odds with the board have signaled plans to push bills next year to rein in the panel’s authority or abolish it altogether, which would require a constitutional amendment. Observers say that even limiting the board’s authority would be a stretch, given the strength of Republicans, who currently hold majorities in both chambers.

It’s not just Democrats who have promoted the idea of diminishing the board’s authority. In the last biennial legislative session, several GOP lawmakers backed a bill to do just that, including state Sen. Kel Seliger, the primary author.

“Our board was elected by the people, and they are lawyers and dentists and things like that, and yet they are going line by line through curriculum,” he said in an interview. “I don’t think that is good educational policy.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 2010 edition of Education Week as Debate Over Social Studies Shows Little Sign of Abating


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