The Progress Report
If America's lucky, what happens in Texas will stay in Texas -- at least when it comes to education standards. It would even better if the right wing's destructive manipulation of the state's schools wasn't happening at all. Last week, the Republican-dominated Texas Board of Education approved a social studies curriculum that extols the importance of the National Rifle Association, Phyllis Schlafly, Confederate leader Jefferson Davis, and Joseph McCarthy. Right-wing board members removed Thomas Jefferson from "a list of figures whose writings inspired revolutions in the late 18th century and 19th century"; many of them bear ill will toward the third U.S. president because he coined the term "separation between church and state." They also decided to require U.S. history classes to teach the difference between legal and illegal immigration. Last week's vote was the culmination of a decades-long plot by social conservatives to gain control over the influential Board of Education and, ultimately, the power to impose a far-right ideology on the nearly 5 million schoolchildren in Texas. Unfortunately, what's happening in the Lone Star State may spread nationally: Texas is one of the largest textbook buyers in the nation, and publishers, eager to get the business, often tailor their books to the state's standards.
IN WITH NEWT GINGRICH, OUT WITH SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE: The Texas Board of Education is trying to create an alternate universe where McCarthy's dangerously slanderous allegations were true, Ronald Reagan was the greatest president in U.S. history, the separation of church and state doesn't exist, global warming is a myth, and people of color barely exist. The board voted 10-5 along party lines to give preliminary approval to these changes last week, and they will likely give final approval in May. Although the state has a large Latino population, efforts by Latino board members to "include more Latino figures as role models" in the curriculum were consistently defeated. At one point, a board member stormed out, saying, "They can just pretend this is a white America and Hispanics don't exist. They are going overboard, they are not experts, they are not historians. They are rewriting history, not only of Texas but of the United States and the world." Republican Don McLeroy, the board's leading conservative crusader, lost a battle to "remove hip-hop and insert country music in its place from a proposed set of examples of cultural movements." Telling, however, was Republican Pat Hardy's justification for including hip hop: White people listen to the music too. "These people are multimillionaires, and believe me, there are not enough black people to buy that," she said. "There are white people buying this." Important liberal figures are also being wiped out of U.S. history. The Republican majority voted against requiring Texas textbooks and teachers to cover the late Democratic senator Edward Kennedy, the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and leading Hispanic civil rights groups. (Hillary Clinton and Thurgood Marshall, the country's first African-American Supreme Court justice, will be taught.) Instead, students will learn about "the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s." "We are adding balance," said McLeroy. "History has already been skewed. Academia is skewed too far to the left."
RIGHT-WING PLOT TO TAKE OVER TEXAS' EDUCATION SYSTEM: McLeroy may be one of the most influential education officials in Texas, but he's certainly no expert. "The way I evaluate history textbooks is first I see how they cover Christianity and Israel," he told the Washington Monthly. "Then I see how they treat Ronald Reagan -- he needs to get credit for saving the world from communism and for the good economy over the last twenty years because he lowered taxes." Beginning in the 1960s, social-conservative "citizen activists" started taking advantage of the state's "little-known citizen-review process that allowed the public to weigh in on textbook content." Publishers began "self-censoring" their books to avoid protests by these activists. The situation became so absurd that in 1995, the Texas legislature finally intervened "after a particularly heated skirmish over health textbooks -- among other things, the board demanded that publishers pull illustrations of techniques for breast self-examination and swap a photo of a briefcase-toting woman for one of a mother baking a cake." The mid-90s is also when the Texas GOP began aggressively going after local school board races and in 2006, Republicans claimed 10 of the 15 Board of Education seats. One of the ideologues on the board is Cynthia Dunbar, who has called public education a "tool of perversion." In 2007, Gov. Rick Perry (R) named McLeroy, a suburban dentist, as chairman. The standards the board is now voting on were recommended by right-wing friends of the conservative bloc, including "a Massachusetts-based preacher who has argued that California wildfires and Hurricane Katrina were God's punishment for tolerating gays." Although the Texas Education Agency originally assembled a team of teachers and professors to review the standards, McLeroy pushed them out. The Board of Education's right-wing agenda has been aggressively pushed by Fox News in recent weeks, with the network claiming that liberals in the state are trying to remove mentions of Christmas and Independence Day from textbooks. The claims were so outrageous that the Texas Education Agency put out a press release debunking them. McLeroy may have gone too far: He recently lost his primary re-election battle to a more moderate Republican.
SPREADING OUTSIDE OF TEXAS: As the New York Times explains, Texas' standards "serve as a template for textbook publishers, who must come before the board next year with drafts of their books." Because the Texas market is so large, books for the state's students "often rocket to the top of the market, decreasing costs for other school districts and leading them to buy the same materials." "The books that are altered to fit the standards become the bestselling books, and therefore within the next two years they'll end up in other classrooms," said Fritz Fischer, chairman of the National Council for History Education. While Texas's ultra-conservative positions were generally balanced "by the more-liberal pull of California, the nation's largest textbook market," California has delayed buying new textbooks until 2014, giving Texas "unparalleled power to shape the textbooks that children around the country read for years to come." Textbook publishers have become nervous by the bad publicity, saying that they now have the ability "to deliver completely customized content" to different states. The situation in Texas, however, has also made textbook authors uneasy and wondering whether they'll be comfortable endorsing their own books. "I'm made uncomfortable by mandates of this kind for sure," said Paul S. Boyer, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor emeritus and author of several popular U.S. history textbooks, including some that are on the approved list in Texas.