After three days of contentious meetings, Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) members gave preliminary approval to revised social studies standards they say are intended to rein in the liberal bias of teachers and academics. “We are adding balance,” said Dr. Don McLeroy, leader of the conservative bloc of the board. “History has been skewed. Academia is skewed too far to the left.”
The new standards will be written next year and remain in effect for ten years. They will determine what the state’s 4.8 million K-12 students are taught in government, world history, U.S. history, and economics classes from kindergarten through high school. They will also be used to develop state tests and write textbooks.
Significant media attention has been devoted to the state’s debate over social studies guidelines because decisions made there have national impact. Since Texas is the largest single purchaser of textbooks, publishers tailor them to its guidelines. Typically more than 90% of America’s textbooks are based on Lone Star state curriculum, as it is too costly to produce multiple versions.
The lengthy process of determining curriculum guidelines began with teams of teachers writing a first draft, which was then reviewed by six experts appointed by the SBOE. The expert panel then reported their findings and recommendations to the 15 board members.
The board also received at least 14,000 emails and considered 17 hours of public testimony prior to the three-day meeting. Parents, teachers, civil rights groups, historians and state legislators were among those who attended the proceedings, and many testified before the board.
The heated discussions there served as a public forum for quieter ideological skirmishes happening throughout the country. The battle line runs between defenders of traditional values who oppose what they see as politically correct historical revision and progressives who prefer secularism and emphasize prominent inclusion of minority figures.
McLeroy acknowledged the conflict, saying, “Our country is divided on how we see things, and [it comes] into sharp focus, especially with history and how you present it to your children.” (Austin-American Statesman, 3-11-09)
Proponents of both sides were visible and vocal during the deliberations.
The conservative caucus of the Texas legislature submitted written testimony and sent representative Ken Paxton to read it at the proceedings. The letter called on the board to resist pressure to wash the standards “clean of any references to Judeo-Christian faiths while promoting references to other religions.”
The letter cited a prior attempt to remove Christmas and Rosh Hashanah from guidelines and replace them with the five-day Hindu festival Diwali, a measure that was overturned by the board.
The board also rejected the adoption of the secularist-preferred B.C.E. and C.E. (Before the Common Era and Common Era) instead of B.C. and A.D. to specify time periods before and after the birth of Christ. Board member Mavis Knight (D-Dallas) objected on the ground that the “social studies community uses B.C.E. and C.E.”
Hostilities escalated over presenting the religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers, and particularly on how the First Amendment should be taught. Knight proposed an amendment to teach students that “the Founding Fathers supported a strong wall of separation between church and state.”
Republican member Ken Mercer countered that the Founders “did not want a separation from religion, they just wanted to avoid having a national denomination . . . one religion everyone would have to follow. I think they had a different understanding of religious freedom.”
Other Republican board members agreed that the First Amendment was written to protect rather than prohibit the practice of religion, and Knight’s motion failed. (wnd.com, 3-15-10)
“Some board members and the non-expert ideologues they appointed to a review panel have made it clear that they want students to learn that the Founding Fathers intended America to be an explicitly Christian nation with laws based on their own narrow interpretations of the Bible,” said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, an organization whose mission is to “counter the religious right.”
Former board chairman McLeroy said the efforts of conservatives were misconstrued and mischaracterized. “I don’t see anyone wanting to say this is a Christian nation or anything like that,” he said. “The argument is that the principles on which (the nation) has been founded are biblically based.”
McLeroy found support for his position in the dean of the College of Humanities at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, Derek Davis. “An education without some understanding of the profound role of religion in our nation’s history and its contributions to our nation’s success is an incomplete education, and our courts have often said as much,” said Davis. (Education Week, 1-13-10)
The subject of minority inclusion and prominence in the guidelines was another ongoing area of controversy.
Texas state legislator Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin), representing the Mexican-American caucus, came before the board to voice concerns about the absence of important Hispanic figures and groups in the history standards. Rodriguez asked the board to include Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America and member of the Democratic Socialists of America in the guidelines; member Pat Hardy (R- Fort Worth) informed him Huerta was already in the standards.
Other Hispanics such as Jose Antonia Navarro were added in response to the push for greater inclusion, but tensions rose when not every request was adopted.
Mary Helen Berlanga, Democrat board member, stormed out of the room when members did not add the names of two Hispanic and one black Medal of Honor recipients to a history lesson. Berlanga was also upset that the board deleted a requirement that sociology students “explain how institutional racism is evident in American society.”
She accused her colleagues of “whitewashing” the curriculum standards, saying, “We can just pretend this is a white America and Hispanics don’t exist.”
Republican members argued that listing three Medal of Honor winners out of the thousands of those honored “diminishes the accomplishment of other recipients.” Terri Leo (R-Spring) said, “I would rather give teachers the academic freedom to possibly pull a winner from that school, that those children can relate to and emulate.”
Further examples of the changes the SBOE ultimately approved include restoring references to Independence Day, Thomas Edison, Christopher Columbus, Mother Teresa, Albert Einstein, Neil Armstrong and Daniel Boone that had been deleted. The board added the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms to a lesson on the Bill of Rights, an element conspicuously absent from some curricula.
Teachers and textbooks will be required to accurately describe the U.S. form of government as a constitutional republic rather than as a democracy. Depictions of Joseph McCarthy must include an explanation of “how the later release of the Verona papers confirmed suspicions of Communist infiltration in the U.S. government.” The Verona papers are verified transcripts of communications between the Soviet Union and its agents in the U.S.
A section in the U.S. government standards will cover the concept of American exceptionalism and detail how the nation’s values are unique from other nations. Alexis de Tocqueville’s five values critical to America’s success as a republic will also be delineated. In economics, the board added free-market economists Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek to the usual list of John Maynard Keynes, Adam Smith and Karl Marx.
The board, whose members are elected, voted ten to five along party lines to approve the revised standards, with the Republicans prevailing over the Democrats. Conservatives held only one seat 15 years ago, but have built up to seven of the ten GOP seats on the 15-member board now.
A final vote on the Texas standards is expected in May, after another public comment period.