Sidestepping protests from conservative religious groups, the Republican-led Texas school board passed a revised set of K-12 standards in vocational training, fine arts, and computer skills this month.
The 15-member panel now appears poised to adopt remaining portions of the standards, called Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS, which include math, social studies, and language arts, on schedule in July.
“We had bent over backwards to placate the concerns of others, but it was time to get the offense on the field,” said Jack Christie, the Republican board president. “We’re not allowing for any more delays.”
That may mean that the long-running debate over how to improve the Texas standards is finally winding down. Nevertheless, standards critics are predicting more rhetorical skirmishes.
“We plan to do everything we can to draw attention to the school-to-work agenda that we feel has driven TEKS till there’s a change,” said Stephanie Cecil, who was a member of two standards work groups and is the state’s education liaison to the conservative Eagle Forum.
Conservative critics also can point to at least one moral victory. Commissioner of Education Mike Moses announced recently that he had suspended the payment of $500,000 to a consulting group that critics say is a force in a liberal national education agenda.
Nearly 400 teachers, school officials, parents, and others have worked for more than two years on what would be the largest revision of the Texas standards since they were adopted in 1983.
But debate surrounding that work has peaked in recent months.
Backed by state and national conservative groups, several state board members and other critics attacked the plan as part of a national agenda that would weaken academics in favor of job training. State officials insist that the new standards would beef up academics by requiring students to demonstrate what they learn.
At the middle of the storm are the National Center on Education and the Economy, a nonprofit group based in Washington that helped develop model K-12 standards through the New Standards project, and the center’s president, Marc S. Tucker.
Texas, as one of 14 partner states in the project, has paid the center $1.6 million in dues since 1992. In return, Texas shared the center’s research and used its consultants in revising its standards.
Mr. Tucker has been singled out by critics for his connections to first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who earned $102,000 in 1991 as a consultant for the center, which was then based in Rochester, N.Y. That payment was the subject of an investigation by the New York state attorney general’s office. (“Inquiry Focuses on Fees Paid to Hillary Clinton,” Jan. 31, 1996.)
Last week, Mr. Tucker scoffed at charges linking the federal Goals 2000 and school-to-work programs and his center to a master education plan akin to Mrs. Clinton’s failed national health-care plan.
“Instead of engaging in a debate, they indulge in a smear campaign,” he said of the opponents of the standards plan.
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But the uproar had an impact.
Mr. Moses has suspended the state’s $500,000 in dues to the NCEE for 1996-97 membership in the New Standards project. The state partnerships end this summer. A spokesman for Mr. Moses said he suspended the first payment last fall, but he did not make the news public until February.
“We stopped it because there were questions about whether it was unduly impacting the curriculum-rewrite process,” Mr. Moses said through a spokeswoman last week. “We are still considering whether to pay the bill.”
Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for Mr. Moses, added that there were concerns that outside consultants were having too much impact on the project.
Mr. Tucker said that other states have suspended payments in the past in response to political pressure. He added: “I have no reason to believe that we won’t see [the Texas payment].”
Even with its fractious tone, the back-and-forth of recent months has improved the Texas standards in some ways, some officials said.
“It helped us to focus more, and clarify our language,” said Anne Smisko, the Texas Education Agency’s associate commissioner for curriculum, assessment, and technology.
For example, the first 2,000-page draft was whittled down to nearly half that size, she said. And thanks to heightened media coverage and an extension of review periods, the number of written public responses to the first draft grew from 12,100 in February 1996 to 16,976 on the second draft last July.
Ms. Cecil said that, for example, had it not been for parents’ protests, the standards would not call for kindergarten students to be able to identify every letter in the alphabet.