Social Study: SBOE Round 2

State Board of Education hears lengthy public testimony and engages
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Friends, the last several hours have been quite exciting. You see, your friendly reporter got an upgrade from the overflow arena into the actual meeting. Imagine, if you will, a room bulging with people. Kids in different matching T-shirts jostling elderly veterans and ladies in nice suits. The place is crawling with reporters—national and statewide. With so many cameras on tripods, it’s hard to see. That is if you can even squeeze into the room.

And why not make a fuss? This is the last time the State Board of Education will take testimony on the social studies curriculum it has made internationally famous. The board is almost at the social studies finish line, and they’re scheduled to vote on the standards Friday. Tomorrow, watch for heaps of amendments, including some controversial ones from social conservative Don McLeroy. The main question among witnesses: vote, amend or delay. It’s not clear what will happen. The social conservatives have seven solid votes for the curriculum and based on today’s questioning, it looks like the Democrats will hang together against the current direction of the standards. That leaves the three moderate Republicans—Patricia Hardy, Bob Craig and Geraldine “Tincy” Miller. Tomorrow will likely give a better sense of how the vote will come down. But with over 200 people signed up to testify, today has been about slogging through the public testimony. We’ve still heard less than half of the over 200 witnesses who signed up.

Why the slow pace? Well, it would seem that the SBOE members wanted to question, argue with or comment on almost all the public testimony presented. It’s made for some decent political theater, but I would have preferred the serialized-episode approach.

The morning portion saw bigwigs like the president of the NAACP, former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige and conservative state lawmakers Wayne Christian and Dan Flynn. The afternoon started in a similar manner. A roster of minority legislators, including reps. Alma Allen, Ruth McClendon-Jones and Dawnna Dukes, all arrived for the second part of the meeting, all of them pushing for a postponement for fear that the current standards don’t give enough information about the plight of minorities and the history of discrimination.

“As a proud Texan and as a proud American, I don’t run away from our history. It is what it is,” said Sylvester Turner, D-Houston. “There is nothing wrong with a delay if it gets it right.”

That’s not what the conservatives on the board are saying. “That punishes children if you delay a vote on a proclamation,”  board member Terri Leo told Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, in a particularly barbed exchange. “This is a very transparent and public process unlike your [committee meetings],” she quipped when he argued the need for more public input.

“By delaying this process we’re doing nothing but increasing the amount of disagreement,” said Republican Barbara Cargill. “Because we’re never going to agree.”

Some of the most striking testimony came in written form. Six of the nine members of the social studies curriculum outside review board sent a damning letter about the standards the board is poised to adopt. “Texans should be outraged at the ways in which the SBOE rewrote the TEKS without regard to standard historical interpretations,” they wrote, saying they’d sent the letter to show their “collective disgust.”

Snap.

Written was probably the way to go. Board members didn’t go easy on witnesses, even when they were regular folk. When college student Katy Eyberg demanded that labor activist Dolores Huerta be returned to the third-grade curriculum, it took Cargill about 0.2 seconds to point out that Huerta is still in the high school curriculum, and, for the first time, she’s required material.

That prompted Rick Agosto, traditionally a swing vote on the board, to come to the student’s defense. “She was sideswiped,” Agosto said of Dolores Huerta’s absence from the third-grade standards. “She was replaced because she was a socialist.”

When witness Mary Bruner got up to speak, using the sweetest little-old-lady voice I’ve heard in a while, she spoke of her love of Davy Crockett. “Are people who are opposed to patriotism also opposed to school pride and a winning tradition?” she said.

Mary Helen Berlanga, treading carefully, tried to raise the point that modern research on Crockett isn’t quite so kind. She didn’t pursue the point too far, as Bruner repeated the importance of role models. But when Bruner decided to say that American slavery was not unique and other countries did it too, Democrat Lawrence Allen seemed to have had his fill.

Chattel slavery, he said, “has never happened” in other countries. “When we start playing with words, we minimize,” he said to Bruner’s earnest face.

These exchanges weren’t unique. In fact, they were the norm. Almost every witness seemed to warrant discussion or argument.

“I need chocolate,” said Terri Leo after she offered $1,000 if a witness could back up his claims about her.

Chair Gail Lowe had the world’s least enviable job—enforcing rules fairly and trying to maintain some level of decorum. The crowd was rowdy, and many of her colleagues were eager to engage. “This is not a debate between the member and the testifier,” she pleaded—more than once.

But hey, this is it for public testimony and tomorrow we’re on to the board’s debate. Soon we’ll be done—unless that is, they vote to postpone. And then, oy vey, you may be reading this post again next year.