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State Board Confronts Its Evolving Influence on Texas’ Textbooks

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State Board of Education chair Barbara Cargill
State Board of Education chair Barbara Cargill

As Tincy Miller said this week, “We are in a different era today, and that is technology.”

The Dallas Republican was describing, at Tuesday’s hearing on the adoption of new science textbooks, how things had changed for the State Board of Education since she first joined in 1992. And while our present “Technology Age” probably predates even her tenure, she’s right that, thanks in part to classroom technology, the board’s influence on textbooks has changed dramatically. It’s shrinking—fast.

Miller spoke Tuesday about how a 2011 law has “regretfully” stripped much of the state board’s authority from the textbook adoption process by letting school districts spend state money on any books they want, including ones that aren’t on the state board’s approved list.

This week showed the board adjusting to its new, more advisory role in textbook selection—and a few board members hoping to get some of that old authority back. SBOE chairwoman Barbara Cargill, in her latest newsletter to supporters, advocates restoring the board’s authority to rule on the quality of lessons, a power the Legislature revoked in 1995. (“Now is the time to ride the wave of public concern and outrage about CSCOPE,” she writes.)

Two years ago, as the Legislature cut $5.4 billion from public education, it also eliminated the state’s classroom technology account and told districts to use the state’s $750 million textbook fund for their tech needs too. Senate Bill 6 let districts spend that money on any textbooks they wanted, or software, or iPads, or people to keep the equipment running. They got less money, but more freedom.

“If I were a publisher, I would simply bypass the state adoption process,” former state board member Michael Soto told the San Antonio Express-News last year.

So far, districts haven’t exactly abandoned the books on the state board’s approved list, but David Anderson, an education lobbyist whose clients include publishers and school districts, says the change has been faster than he expected. “I really thought it’d take four to five years till districts see all the possibilities this has opened up,” he says.

Thanks to some meticulous record-keeping at the Texas Education Agency, it’s easy to see how districts are spending their money. So far this school year—as of today—districts have spent $83.5 million from the state’s “instructional materials” fund, $36 million of which has gone to books that aren’t on the state board’s list of adopted materials. Another $20 million has paid for software, tech gear and personnel.

“They’re still buying a lot of state board approved items,” Anderson says, but mostly, districts are buying less of everything.

As gatekeepers to book sales for 5 million students, Texas’ State Board of Education used to have a huge influence on schoolbooks sold nationwide. Former chairman Don McLeroy famously said, “Sometimes it boggles my mind the kind of power we have.”

Lawmakers relieved the board of much of that power in Senate Bill 6, two years after McLeroy led the SBOE on a tear of culture-war revisionism. Meanwhile, the vast majority of other states adopted the federal Common Core standards, creating a much more enticing market for publishers—one that doesn’t include Texas or the whims of its state board.

But a weaker state board doesn’t mean an end to pitched battles over how we teach evolution or global warming. As nasty as the SBOE’s efforts to politicize education have been in the past, they’ve been the lightning rod that spares local districts from hosting those fights.

Under a new law carried by by Sen. Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock), school districts now have to hold public meetings on any new “major curriculum initiatives” they adopt. Activists agitating against the CSCOPE lessons hope the law means a chance to wage little battles over Islam or Agenda 21 at districts across the state. But the law also means any new textbook adoption could flare up another culture war.

“The possibility absolutely exists,” Anderson says, “and the atmosphere is more conducive for a successful push for local hearings now than it was 10, 20, 30 years ago.”

 

Patrick Michels is a reporter for the Texas Observer and a former legislative intern. He has been a staff writer and web editor at the Dallas Observer, and a former editor of the Texas Independent. He has a bachelor's in journalism from Northwestern University, a master's in photojournalism from the University of Texas at Austin, and is a competitive eating enthusiast.

  • schafersman

    In fact, instructional materials publishers (formerly known as textbook publishers) want to be 100% in compliance with the TEKS, and only the SBOE can give that certification. Public schools are obligated to teach 100% of the TEKS and they find it more convenient and less expensive to purchase materials that can promise that rather than purchase something that is less comprehensive so they have to buy supplementary materials, too. Also, school districts have historical relationships with publishers they want to keep, since major publishers provide abundant ancillary materials: course books, exercises, pre-written exams, and other valuable documents that save teachers an enormous amount of time. New materials don’t have to meet 100% of the TEKS, but publishers will try to make that goal so schools can justify purchasing those materials. Thus, the SBOE still has a lot of power, and it is going through the same expensive and elaborate process it always has to evaluate and adopt those materials.

    Because of this reality, the SBOE still has the power to manipulate the adoption process to extort–what the TEA terms negotiate–with the publishers to make changes to their materials to meet the TEKS and correct “errors.” The SBOE nominated notorious, aggressive Creationists to be science materials reviewers and they wrote comments that criticized the materials for not including enough criticisms of evolution. The TEA–a “captured agency” that has religious right-wing ideologues and Creationists as top administrators–will use these comments to force publishers to make changes. Publishers will find it difficult to resist. Thus, the SBOE and TEA are using the same ploys and techniques they have used for decades to pervert the process and adopt science materials that misrepresent and censor evolutionary biology.

    Intelligent citizens may wonder why any school district in its right mind would adopt science materials that go through the corrupt SBOE adoption process. All new instructional materials have errors and inadequacies that must be corrected, and if the process was conducted honestly with the best interests of students at heart, errors would be corrected but content would not be censored and compromised. But the SBOE has historically been governed by members who hold an extreme brand of radical, right-wing ideology and ultra-religious fundamentalism and the results have been catastrophic for the academic success of Texas students (and now the TEA is governed similarly). On national standardized exams, Texas students score among those from the five lowest states. The enormous political and ideological pressure on teachers and school officials, the inordinately complex and detailed TEKS (Texas curriculum standards), the great number of state-mandated exams, and the censored and manipulated instructional materials in biology and social studies have directly led to this state education debacle.

    At bottom this is the result of an extreme political minority who have the power to win Republican primaries and have the desire to politicize public education in ways that promote ignorance and misinformation to indoctrinate students in their ideological and religious fantasies. Just look at CSCOPE, a perfectly satisfactory curriculum that was written to promote critical thinking and tolerance about social, cultural, and religious differences, something greatly needed in our state culture of willful ignorance. It was attacked by extremists and demagogues immediately by Tea Party Republicans. These same TP Republicans lead the SBOE and the TEA. That’s the problem we have.