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How Texas Inflicts Bad Textbooks on Us

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Henry Cabluck/AP Images
Texas State Board of Education members Cynthia Dunbar, Barbara Cargill, and Gail Lowe discussing curriculum standards, Austin, May 2008. Cargill, who was appointed chairwoman last year by Governor Rick Perry, has expressed concern that there are now only ‘six true conservative Christians on the board.’

“What happens in Texas doesn’t stay in Texas when it comes to textbooks”

No matter where you live, if your children go to public schools, the textbooks they use were very possibly written under Texas influence. If they graduated with a reflexive suspicion of the concept of separation of church and state and an unexpected interest in the contributions of the National Rifle Association to American history, you know who to blame.

When it comes to meddling with school textbooks, Texas is both similar to other states and totally different. It’s hardly the only one that likes to fiddle around with the material its kids study in class. The difference is due to size—4.8 million textbook-reading schoolchildren as of 2011—and the peculiarities of its system of government, in which the State Board of Education is selected in elections that are practically devoid of voters, and wealthy donors can chip in unlimited amounts of money to help their favorites win.

Those favorites are not shrinking violets. In 2009, the nation watched in awe as the state board worked on approving a new science curriculum under the leadership of a chair who believed that “evolution is hooey.” In 2010, the subject was social studies and the teachers tasked with drawing up course guidelines were supposed to work in consultation with “experts” added on by the board, one of whom believed that the income tax was contrary to the word of God in the scriptures.

Ever since the 1960s, the selection of schoolbooks in Texas has been a target for the religious right, which worried that schoolchildren were being indoctrinated in godless secularism, and political conservatives who felt that their kids were being given way too much propaganda about the positive aspects of the federal government. Mel Gabler, an oil company clerk, and his wife, Norma, who began their textbook crusade at their kitchen table, were the leaders of the first wave. They brought their supporters to State Board of Education meetings, unrolling their “scroll of shame,” which listed objections they had to the content of the current reading material. At times, the scroll was fifty-four feet long. Products of the Texas school system have the Gablers to thank for the fact that at one point the New Deal was axed from the timeline of significant events in American history.

The Texas State Board of Education, which approves textbooks, curriculum standards, and supplemental materials for the public schools, has fifteen members from fifteen districts whose boundaries don’t conform to congressional districts, or really anything whatsoever. They run in staggered elections that are frequently held in off years, when always-low Texas turnout is particularly abysmal. The advantage tends to go to candidates with passionate, if narrow, bands of supporters, particularly if those bands have rich backers. All of which—plus a natural supply of political eccentrics—helps explain how Texas once had a board member who believed that public schools are the tool of the devil.

Texas originally acquired its power over the nation’s textbook supply because it paid 100 percent of the cost of all public school textbooks, as long as the books in question came from a very short list of board-approved options. The selection process “was grueling and tension-filled,” said Julie McGee, who worked at high levels in several publishing houses before her retirement. “If you didn’t get listed by the state, you got nothing.” On the other side of the coin, David Anderson, who once sold textbooks in the state, said that if a book made the list, even a fairly mediocre salesperson could count on doing pretty well. The books on the Texas list were likely to be mass-produced by the publisher in anticipation of those sales, so other states liked to buy them and take advantage of the economies of scale.

“What happens in Texas doesn’t stay in Texas when it comes to textbooks,” said Dan Quinn, who worked as an editor of social studies textbooks before joining the Texas Freedom Network, which was founded by Governor Ann Richards’s daughter, Cecile, to counter the religious right.

As a market, the state was so big and influential that national publishers tended to gear their books toward whatever it wanted. Back in 1994, the board requested four hundred revisions in five health textbooks it was considering. The publisher Holt, Rinehart and Winston was the target for the most changes, including the deletion of toll-free numbers for gay and lesbian groups and teenage suicide prevention groups. Holt announced that it would pull its book out of the Texas market rather than comply. (A decade later Holt was back with a new book that eliminated the gay people.)

Given the high cost of developing a single book, the risk of messing with Texas was high. “One of the most expensive is science,” McGee said. “You have to hire medical illustrators to do all the art.” When she was in the business, the cost of producing a new biology book could run to $5 million. “The investments are really great and it’s all on risk.”

Imagine the feelings of the textbook companies—not to mention the science teachers—when, in response to a big push from the Gablers, the state board adopted a rule in 1974 that textbooks mentioning the theory of evolution “should identify it as only one of several explanations of the origins of humankind” and that those treating the subject extensively “shall be edited, if necessary, to clarify that the treatment is theoretical rather than factually verifiable.” The state attorney general eventually issued an opinion that the board’s directive wouldn’t stand up in court, and the rule was repealed. But the beat went on.

“Evolution is hooey”

Texas is hardly the only state with small, fierce pressure groups trying to dictate the content of textbooks. California, which has the most public school students, tends to come at things from the opposite side, pressing for more reflection of a crunchy granola worldview. “The word in publishing was that for California you wanted no references to fast food, and in Texas you wanted no references to sex,” Quinn told me. But California’s system of textbook approval focuses only on books for the lower grades. Professor Keith Erekson, director of the Center for History Teaching and Learning at the University of Texas at El Paso, says that California often demands that its texts have a Californiacentric central narrative that would not be suitable for anywhere else, while “the Texas narrative can be used in other states.” Publishers tend to keep information on who buys how much of what secret, but Erekson said he’s seen estimates that the proportion of social studies textbooks sold containing the basic Texas-approved narrative range from about half to 80 percent.

Some extremely rich Texans have gotten into the board of education election game, putting their money at the disposal of conservative populists. No one has had more impact than James Leininger, the San Antonio physician who has had an intense interest in promoting school vouchers. He backed a group called Texans for Governmental Integrity, which was particularly active in state school board elections. Its most famous campaign was in 1994, when it mailed flyers to voters’ homes in one district, showing a black man kissing a white man and claiming that the Democratic incumbent had voted for textbooks that promoted homosexuality. Another organization Leininger has supported, the Heidi Group, sent out a prayer calendar in 1998, which unnervingly urged the right-to-life faithful to devote one day to praying that a San Antonio doctor who performed abortions “will come to see Jesus face to face.”

The chorus of objections to textbook material mounted. Approval of environmental science books was once held up over board concern that they were teaching children to be more loyal to their planet than their country. As the board became a national story and a national embarrassment, the state legislature attempted to put a lid on the chaos in 1995 by restricting the board’s oversight to “factual errors.” This made surprisingly little impact when you had a group of deciders who believed that the theory of evolution, global warming, and separation of church and state are all basically errors of fact.

In 2009, when the science curriculum was once again up for review, conservatives wanted to require that it cover the “strengths and weaknesses” of the theory of evolution. In the end, they settled for a face-saving requirement that students consider gaps in fossil records and whether natural selection is enough to explain the complexity of human cells. Don McLeroy, the board chairman who had opined that “evolution is hooey,” told Washington Monthly that he felt the changes put Texas “light years ahead of any other state when it comes to challenging evolution!”

The process by which the board came to its interesting decisions sometimes seemed confused to the point of incoherence. Things would begin tidily, with panels of teachers and expert consultants. Then the expert consultants multiplied, frequently becoming less and less expert, until the whole process ended in a rash of craziness. The science curriculum was “this document that had been worked on for months,” Nathan Bernier, a reporter for KUT in Austin, told National Public Radio.

Members of the [teachers’ association] had been involved…. People with Ph.D.s had been involved in developing these standards. And then at the last second, there was this mysterious document that was shoved underneath the hotel doors of some of the board members, and this document, at the very last minute, wound up—large portions of it wound up making its way into the guidelines.

In 2010, the board launched itself into the equally contentious sea of the social studies curriculum, and the teacher-dominated team tasked with writing the standards was advised by a panel of “experts,” one of whom was a member of the Minutemen militia. Another had argued that only white people were responsible for advancing civil rights for minorities in America, since “only majorities can expand political rights in America’s constitutional society.”

“The way I evaluate history textbooks is first I see how they cover Christianity and Israel,” McLeroy told 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.”

In their first year of work on social studies, the board agreed that students should be required to study the abandonment of the gold standard as a factor in the decline in the value of the dollar. If the students were going to study the McCarthy anti-Communist witch hunt of the 1950s, they were also going to contemplate “how the later release of the Venona papers confirmed suspicions of communist infiltration in US government.”

The changes often seemed to be thrown out haphazardly, and to pass or fail on the basis of frequently opaque conclusions on the part of the swing members. In 2010, the board tossed out books by the late Bill Martin Jr., the author of Baby Bear, Baby Bear, What Do You See?, from a list of authors third-graders might want to study because someone mixed him up with Bill Martin, the author of Ethical Marxism.

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