Chapter & Verse

By Sean Cavanagh — December 21, 2005 14 min read
Chapter & Verse
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Neal Frey reads textbooks for a living, a job he finds singularly fulfilling. He does not own a television, a credit card, or even a wallet, preferring instead to carry his driver’s license in the front pocket of his oxford shirt. He has very few hobbies. He cannot remember the last time he read a book for the fun of it. After sifting through mountains of written material day after day, on subjects ranging from the fossil record to sexually transmitted diseases, by the time he comes home, he’s usually all read out.

Frey reads textbooks differently from the way most people did when they were in school. He combs through them line by line, recording page numbers and making observations on how their contents compare with his own set of written criteria. On a good day, he might make it through 50 pages. His mentor used to tell him it was better to write nothing about textbooks than to make nine strong points and one weak one. He lives by those words today.

For more than two decades, Frey has labored on behalf of Educational Research Analysts, a conservative Christian textbook-reviewing organization in Longview, Texas, founded by the famously outspoken husband-and-wife team of Mel and Norma Gabler. Since the early 1960s, the organization has sought to rid textbooks of factual errors, perceived liberal bias, and what its reviewers otherwise deem inappropriate content, mostly by exhorting publishers and state officials to make the changes they want. When Mr. Gabler died in 2004 at age 89, and Mrs. Gabler grew ill, it fell to their friend and protégé, the 61-year-old Frey, to keep the reviews coming.

Under the direction of Frey, who is assisted by his wife, Judy, the textbook shop has steadily evolved from the Gablers’ era. While Mel and Norma issued textbook reviews as near-celebrities, storming public hearings and sitting for interviews with Phil Donahue and 60 Minutes, Frey, a former college professor, works in near-anonymity, making his points through the faxes and newsletters he sends to subscribers and textbook decisionmakers.

Judy Frey works with her husband in the reviewer's mostly nondescript mall office.

What remains unchanged, however, is the organization’s commitment to conservatism and the discipline of textbook review. These are not abstract convictions. Frey understands the forces that guide the multibillion-dollar textbook industry and dictate which printed materials end up in classrooms, and he believes the meticulous, often tedious process he follows allows him to bend that process to his liking.

“The lone unforgivable sin in this business is not being a detail fanatic,” Frey explains. “The positions we take are not widely popular in the academic community, so we have to be absolutely sure. To my knowledge, nobody ever challenges us on documentation. Nobody ever challenges us on factual errors. I think it’s generally accepted now, if we say it, you may not agree with it, but as a factual matter, it’s not in debate.”

Yet Frey, like the Gablers, manages to kindle all sorts of debate. To his detractors, his stated pursuit of factual errors obscures his larger goal: to strip textbooks of any content that doesn’t suit his deeply conservative worldview. At times, he’s been highly successful. In 2004, both publishers and the Texas board of education agreed to a proposal, at Frey’s urging, that clearly defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman in health textbooks. And because Frey works in Texas—a vital publishing market—his modest operation can have an enormous sway over the written materials used in classrooms across the country, his critics point out.

“Texas is the big enchilada,” says Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Austin-based Texas Freedom Network, which has opposed many of the stances taken by the Gablers and Frey. “In the end, who’s getting hurt here? The kids. They’re not getting textbooks based on facts. They’re getting books based on somebody’s ideology.”

The World According to Frey

Neal Frey has firmly held views on what belongs in textbooks—and what does not. In his reviews, written criteria, and in conversation, the president of Educational Research Analysts offers positions on nearly every core academic subject.

Story content should present “a universe that rewards virtue and punishes vice,” Frey’s criteria state, as well as “behavioral role models” and “generally positive attitudes toward, and relations among, children, parents, and others.”

“Tax cuts promoted economic expansion,” Frey’s criteria say. “Deficits of the 1980s protected that expansion by restraining government growth. Political liberals were the most upset about those deficits.”

Frey disdains the “whole language” method of teaching pupils to read, which he regards as ineffective and reliant on memorization. He instead favors phonics, which asks children to make associations between sounds and letters.

Like many advocates of a back-to-basics approach, Frey believes students should receive a heavy dose of basic math and number skills before moving into problem-solving. He cautions against students’ overreliance on calculators.

While Frey says he believes the Earth was created as described in the Bible, he opposes efforts to mandate the teaching of so-called “alternatives” to evolution, such as intelligent design and creationism, believing they will be found unconstitutional. Instead, he prefers allowing discussions of any scientific “weaknesses” in evolution.

Neal Frey works in the back of a strip mall, in a former department store’s administrative offices located behind a Mexican grocery and restaurant. The entrance, a metallic double door with a taped-on sign bearing the organization’s name, sits at the end of a sun-cracked parking lot next to a loading dock. Up a cement staircase, a second door opens to the headquarters of Educational Research Analysts, a cavernous, 9,000-square-foot space subdivided into rooms for supplies and printed materials.

Down the main hallway, Mel Gabler’s former office remains intact, with an exercise bike, family photos, and a sign on the door that says “Cheap is Beautiful.” Across the hall are rooms full of books, shelved floor to ceiling, which include conservative primers like Barry Goldwater’s Where I Stand and general-interest volumes such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Oak and the Calf. The Freys have inventoried at least 12,000 books, though they acknowledge there could be many more.

Frey’s office, in the rear, is nearly empty except for a desk, which sits on an orange carpet directly in front of a wall of encyclopedias. It’s a Wednesday morning a few days after the Fourth of July, and Frey is at work with a red pen, a white ruler, and three pastel-colored textbooks bearing the names of three giants in the publishing industry: Glencoe, Holt, and Macmillan.

His task over the days ahead is simple: Complete a “rating sheet” listing the strengths and shortcomings of the 8th grade texts according to a set of standard review criteria he’s designed. All three textbooks were approved last year by the Texas board of ed as “conforming,” an imprimatur that allows the state’s 1,037 school districts to purchase them with state money. Frey wasn’t able to complete his review before the board’s vote last November, so he’s doing one now—as a service, he says, to the public and to schools, including those outside Texas, deciding which editions to buy.

Frey’s criteria strongly suggest that health textbooks should “humanize” prenatal development, using terms like “developing baby,” not “fetus.” They should not attempt to legitimize same-sex marriages or adoptions, he says, or normalize homosexuality. They should include sex education illustrations that are age-appropriate. And overall, they should promote strong character among students, advocating discipline, sound ethics, and deferred gratification, not idleness or noncompetitiveness.

A particular priority for Frey this morning is ensuring that textbooks describe sexual abstinence as an expected behavior, not just a preferred one, and as the only true guarantee against disease and pregnancy. By that measure, the Glencoe edition—with at least 20 exemplary passages—tops the others, he says. Yet overall, Macmillan “really shines,” he adds, easily outclassing the other two in its consistent promotion of responsible behavior.

“Most students will rise to the level you set for them,” Frey avers. “Almost all 15-year-olds will be better off following parental values than their own values.”

Despite his solitary vocation, Frey’s attire on almost every workday is formal: Today, he’s wearing a light-blue dress shirt with the sleeves rolled tightly above the elbows, gray slacks, and a blue-brown tie. About 6 feet tall, he has neatly combed dark hair and wears thick-lensed glasses, which he removes when he leans forward to read. He welcomes questions, even potentially hostile ones, and generally delivers opinions in a voice that increases occasionally in speed, but not in volume. Even his most acerbic jabs at critics (he labels birth-control advocates “the condom lobby” and derides the use of “asexual stealth phrases”) are issued as calmly as if he were reading from a teachers’ manual.

Frey’s favorite reviews by far are in history, a lifelong passion. He grew up in Hillcrest Heights, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C., attending mostly public schools, including Western High School in the national capital’s Georgetown neighborhood, to which he commuted every day by streetcar. He has positive memories of the school, which he recalls as having a racially integrated student body and a demanding curriculum—the reason his parents sent him there. His mother raised him and his sister as Baptists; he was “saved” at the age of 9.

His religious faith factored into his choice of Houghton College, a Christian school in upstate New York, where he met his wife. (Judy Frey, now 61, recalls meeting Neal in an English class; he sat near the front, often questioning the abilities of the assigned authors.) They married, and after he went to graduate school and earned a degree in history, the couple eventually settled in California, where he taught history and other subjects at what is now San Diego Christian College.

In 1982, Frey says, his year-to-year teaching contract was not renewed, and he needed a job. A friend who had heard Mel Gabler speak put Frey in touch with the Texan. After a few phone conversations and discussions of ideology, Gabler hired the younger man, and soon afterward, the Freys and their four children packed up their car and moved to Longview. Over time, Judy Frey, a former elementary school teacher, has taken a larger role in the operation, and the couple’s children, now fully grown, periodically help out, too.

Mel and Norma Gabler, who were working out of their home when Frey arrived, had already been reviewing textbooks for about two decades. The Gablers were drawn into activism in 1961, when Mel, an oil-company clerk in the east Texas town of Hawkins, opened one of his son’s history textbooks and was appalled by what he considered scant mention of the constitutional limits on federal power and the sanctity of state and local rights. As the couple delved into other texts, their anger grew.

In their view, textbooks apologized for communism and espoused secular humanism, moral relativism, and liberalism. They explained evolution but not criticism of that theory, highlighted Western civilization’s shortcomings but not those of other societies, and encouraged loose morals rather than personal responsibility, the Gablers argued.

Soon, the Gablers were contacting local and state elected officials, pressing for answers on why certain textbooks were being adopted or rejected. They weren’t alone; other organizations, such as the conservative-leaning Texas Society Daughters of the American Revolution, had already objected to supposed anti-American bias in classroom materials, according to accounts from that era. Yet the Gablers—who became fixtures at state school board meetings and sat for countless radio and TV interviews—soon emerged as the most persistent voices in the chorus. Eventually, with some support from the public, they went from being part-time volunteers to full-time reviewers.

“Mel and Norma felt the mantle of representing the masses of ordinary parents had fallen on them,” author James Hefley writes in his 1976 biography of the couple, Are Textbooks Harming Your Children? He later continues,“Being ‘home folks’ gave them a big advantage with east Texas media people, many of whom were already resentful of the northern and eastern publishing establishments.”

In one widely publicized appearance before the Texas board of education in the early 1970s, Norma decried a history book for supposedly devoting too much space to Marilyn Monroe while giving meager attention to George Washington. “Is Texas ready for Marilyn to become the mother of our country?” she quipped.

Not everyone was amused. The liberal organization People for the American Way opened an office in Texas largely to combat the Gablers. Longtime newspaper columnist Molly Ivins described the couple in the early 1980s as “fear-mongering, right-wing fruit loops” wreaking “untold damage” on schools. “The Gablers’ idea of education is that there is only one right answer to every question,” Ivins wrote, “that discussion, comparison, skepticism, questioning, independent thinking, and holding an open mind are all undesirable.”

During the Gablers’ era, Educational Research Analysts was not the only player in the textbook-advocacy game. Phyllis Schlafly’s conservative Eagle Forum often combed through classroom materials, as did the liberal Council on Interracial Books for Children. Today, the network includes those with strong political or religious perspectives, such as Frey, as well as parents and special-interest groups who feel that academic content—from history to math to science—should hew to their beliefs.

These advocates’ influence is rooted largely in the arcane process through which textbooks are approved. Local and state control has long been a central tenet of American education, and in many ways, the $4-billion-a-year textbook-publishing industry reflects that. In some states, local districts are given broad discretion in purchasing classroom materials. But in others, like Texas and California, state officials influence what textbooks districts can buy with public money. Rather than attempting to satisfy the needs of each individual state, publishers tend to churn out materials that meet the standards of their biggest markets.

This is where Frey steps in. As the Texas board of ed begins reviewing textbooks, he offers its members his opinions for modifying the language and content of those materials. His ideological foes, such as the Texas Freedom Network, counter with their own suggestions. Critics of this process say pressure from both conservative and liberal groups plays havoc with publishers, who must respond to complaints of bias while attempting to write texts that, to some degree, meet the scattershot standards of various states. The end result, they say, are books that are both bloated and dull. Pressure groups long for a society that is “completely inoffensive to all parties,” writes education historian Diane Ravitch in her book The Language Police. “Getting there, however, involves a heavy dose of censorship.”

The Freys rarely vacation and don't own a TV or have air conditioning. Neal's one "indulgence" appears to be maintaining older cars, like his 1966 Plymouth Valiant and 1963 Ford F100 pickup.

Ravitch, a former assistant U.S. education secretary under the first President Bush, and others argue that doing away with the state-adoption process would allow more local control over textbooks and curb the influence of outside groups. But Frey calls such proposals “profoundly wrongheaded.” The current process ensures government accountability, he says. Turning to local control, he adds, would result in textbook battles being fought “eleven hundred times in every school district around Texas.”

Still, Frey does not dispute his influence in today’s skirmishes. His clout seemed particularly evident in 2004, when the Texas board of ed was deciding whether a number of middle and high school health books were eligible to be bought with state money. The day before the board’s vote, one Republican member, Terri Leo, presented a list of more than 200 proposed changes to the publishers. A majority, she recently acknowledged, came from Frey.

While most of those suggested revisions were rejected, publishers and board members agreed to the much-publicized proposal that distinctly defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The health books also were approved despite complaints that they offered minimal information on sexuality and contraception. Frey, as is typical, did not testify or attend the board’s hearings. Yet he says that Mel Gabler, before his death, called those health-textbook changes the office’s “single greatest victory” in 43 years.

Leo, who recalls meeting Frey twice, denies that he holds sway over her or other board members. His power comes in being better prepared and better versed in textbook subjects than his opponents, she says. “He’s very meticulous,” Leo adds. “He’s a real intellectual. That’s why, by far, his [comments] are really treasured by publishers.”

The work of Educational Research Analysts is also valued by philanthropies, such as the conservative Castle Rock Foundation, which have provided grants to Frey’s operation in recent years, federal records show. More than 80 percent of the organization’s revenue, however, comes from small donations, and its yearly budget usually tops out at roughly $120,000, Frey estimates.

Frey’s annual salary was recently listed in tax records at $40,000, though there are few signs of how he spends it. The kids are all grown, and the Freys rarely vacation. They rent their home of 19 years, declining to take out a mortgage for religious reasons. “The borrower is servant to the lender,” Frey explains, quoting Proverbs. Despite the broiling east Texas heat, they’ve never had air conditioning at home, deeming it an extravagance. They have never owned a TV set. Frey says the last televised event he watched at home was Dwight D. Eisenhower’s second presidential inauguration, in 1957. He has a fondness for radio, however, and enjoys listening to Texas Rangers baseball broadcasts.

His only real indulgences, if you could call them that, are three older-model cars he tinkers with. On this sweltering day, Frey rolls down the window of his 1963 Ford F-100 pickup, which he bought for $800 cash, and starts it up with a roar.

He pulls out of the strip mall and starts toward his house, downshifting when the truck churns up a hill, slipping it into neutral as it rolls down again. A few minutes later, he pulls up in front of the tidy three-bedroom house in a modest neighborhood of oaks and single-story homes.

Inside his garage sits a blue-gray 1966 Plymouth Valiant, purchased 34 years ago, which now has 354,000 miles on it. Frey had the car appraised recently and jokes that receiving that modest estimate was a “humbling experience,” though when he describes its appeal, it is clearly not financial.

“Simplicity. Easy maintenance,” Frey says as he slides behind the wheel. “Reminds me of my youth, that’s a big part of it. Independence. So few people do this”—collect and restore old cars, he means. And just as important, Frey adds, because of the car’s age, it does not have to be inspected for emissions. “The government doesn’t regulate it,” he says. “I like that.”

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Sean Cavanagh is a staff writer at Education Week.
A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 2006 edition of Teacher Magazine as CHAPTER & VERSE


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