Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott delivered a mixed verdict last week on an effort by the state board of education to get more control over the textbooks used in public schools.
Mr. Abbott denied a request by the board to allow it to draw up general content standards for textbooks, but approved the group’s request for the authority to review and reject supplemental educational materials included with those books.
The decision is the latest episode in a decades-old history of controversy over textbook selection in the Lone Star State—battles that have spurred groups of all political stripes to complain of what they see as censorship or bias in the selection and content of schoolbooks. Those debates are watched closely by educators in other states, since Texas’ size makes the state a major force in the textbook market.
State board member Terri Leo, a Republican, asked Mr. Abbott to review the Texas education code in January, arguing that it allows the 15-member board to specify what publishers can and cannot include in public school textbooks and review ancillary materials, such as workbooks and lesson plans, provided free of charge by publishers with the books.
The elected board is limited by legislation passed in 1995—and upheld in a 1996 ruling by then-Attorney General Dan Morales—to reviewing and approving textbooks based on their physical specifications, factual accuracy, and alignment with state curriculum standards.
Textbooks that are approved by the board are put on a “conforming list.” The textbooks on that list are available to districts for free from the state.
The 1995 law was seen by many as an attempt by the legislature to curb ideological influence by the board in the selection process.
Ms. Leo, however, wrote in her request for an opinion by Mr. Abbott that Mr. Morales had “misinterpreted legislative intent,” and that “general textbook content standards are a democratic check and balance by Texas’ elected state board of education on editors and authors, monitoring accountability on concerns that the [state standards] by their nature cannot.”
Deciding What Is ‘Fact’
While Mr. Abbott disagreed with Ms. Leo’s arguments on textbook-content standards, he did find that ancillary materials are included in the education code’s definition of a textbook. Such materials are defined in the code as “a combination of book and supplementary instructional materials that conveys information to the student or otherwise contributes to the learning process” and are therefore subject to the board’s review.
Suzanne Marchman, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, said Attorney General Abbott’s ruling was a victory for board members who were opposed to some of the material publishers were including in the supplements.
For example, she said, the state health education standards stress sexual abstinence before marriage, and only require students to “analyze the effectiveness and ineffectiveness of barrier protection and other contraceptive methods … keeping in mind the effectiveness of remaining abstinent until marriage.”
Some board members were upset by the way textbook publishers covered contraception in the ancillary materials, Ms. Marchman said, and the board will now have the authority to restrict content that they feel does not sufficiently stress the importance of abstinence.
The board will have more power in deciding what is “fact” with regard to scientific studies cited in supplemental materials, such as the effectiveness of condoms in preventing pregnancy and disease transmission, she said.
The board is scheduled to select mathematics textbooks for all grades in November.
A version of this article appeared in the September 27, 2006 edition of Education Week as Texas Board Can Now Review Supplemental Materials