Texas Textbook Debate Could Have National Impact

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The Texas State Board of Education will vote May 21 on new social studies curriculum standards. The changes will impact not only approximately 5 million state school children, it could also influence students across the country.

Texas is one of the largest buyers of textbooks in the country. It's sheer size is one reason as well as its status as a state adoption market. Publishers need only market their books one time -- to the state education board.

Dr. James Kracht, associate dean for Academic Affairs at the College of Education and Human Development at Texas A&M University, has watched the process for years.

"In a lot of other states, they have to market district by district or in some cases, even school by school," he explained.

Giving Liberal Bias the Boot?

Across The Lone Star State, the debate over what's in those textbooks is spreading like wildfire. Liberals say conservatives are trying to rewrite history from an ideological point of view. And conservatives say liberals need to recognize the influence of faith and conservative movements in American history.

"I don't want a conservative stamp on it," board chairman Gail Lowe said. "But I think we've become a very secular, liberal society."

When she's not studying social studies curriculum and other educational issues for the state, Lowe serves as editor for the semi-weekly newspaper, The Lampasas Dispatch Record. As a regular copy editor, she understands the power of words.

"When we speak glowingly of progressive movements and liberal initiatives that have guided our country for the last 40 to 50 years, there ought also to be a recognition of a conservative resurgence back in the '80s," she explained as she pointed out how she wants to change the social studies curriculum.

Lowe and the majority conservative bloc on the board have proposed a series of revisions that would counter liberal influences. One of the underlying philosophies they want students to understand is the concept of American exceptionalism -- the principles that have made the U.S. great.

Other proposed changes include:

  • studying the conservative resurgence of the '80s and '90s.
  • examining Christian conservative history makers from Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin to Phyllis Schlafly and the Moral Majority.
  • discussion of the political motto "In God We Trust."
  • dropping a study of the Crusades.
  • adding a study of the Reformation and its political and religious impact.

Remembering Minorities

Some Democrats on the board have sought to downplay the disagreements.

"I believe the conflict is a good thing," said board member Lawrence Allen, "because it gives us a process by which we can hash things out."

Allen would like to see more minorities profiled in the textbooks. But he also fears that the conservatives' long list of names will take its toll on teachers who want enough time to develop concepts and critical thinking skills.

"If you can imagine 129 names in a course and the course is 186 days long, how well could you actually teach the students?" he asked.

However, Allen and those like him may find their views in the minority when the board votes in two weeks. Chairman Lowe describes her focus as bringing "balance" to the curriculum and says that's what her constituents want.

"They're very concerned about the secular, liberal bent that's in university textbooks and is making its way into public school classrooms," she said.

Bruising Brawl or Healthy Debate?

Kracht believes both sides will end up reaching some mainstream conclusions.

"Texas is not going off into some land of wild conservatism," he said, "or wild liberalism."

As a former teacher, he relishes in the debate which, on its own, serves as a modern-day civics lesson.

"I really think this debate is healthy," he said. "It's drawing more attention to the content of social studies. And anytime we can interest the public and parents in the content their children are learning, so much the better."

The board has scheduled a public hearing for May 19 before its final expected vote on May 21. The curriculum changes are intended to be in effect for 7 to 10 years.

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Heather Sells

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