The Calm Before the Storm

At today's SBOE meeting, it was all love, peace and irony
by Published on

Tomorrow, when the social studies fights begin and various members draw lines in the culture-war sand, it will be hard to remember that today even happened. It was one of those rare moments when no one really wanted to watch the State Board of Education. Unlike tomorrow when the room will bulge with people, today the press table was almost empty most of the day, as were the hundreds of folding chairs. And the board worked together to problem solve.

Funnily enough, their decisions this afternoon will likely lead to much broader implications for Texas students than the crowd-pleasing minutiae of the social studies curriculum.

You see, we’re in a bit of dilemma. First there’s the simple fact that the new science textbooks covering the new curriculum standards (remember all that evolution fighting?) will cost $400 million total. The budget’s already sinking like the Titanic, and the legislature is already expecting a bill for almost $900 million to pay for the new English/Language Arts textbooks  and continuing contracts.

Can’t we just put off those new science books? you say. Well, not exactly. Thanks to House Bill 3 from last session, the state will start implementing end-of-course exams. Starting in the 2011 school year (Aug 2011-May 2012), those exams will be on the new science standards. And those new science standards aren’t in any of the books.

Uh-oh.

“We’ve never been faced with this particular set of circumstances all at the same time,” one of the Education Agency officials pleaded to the board.

There’s the simplest option—postponing the new science standards until there’s money to test kids on them. But that leaves the science curriculum open to attack from the board members who weren’t so happy with it originally. (Plus the incoming members don’t seem eager to worship at the culture-war altar and may be all too eager to take out some of the more exciting standards.)

So that leaves few other options. Limiting the new books to just high school didn’t seem to work—it would still cost over $120 million. On all sides, the board members seemed committed to figuring out at least a stop-gap measure. “We certainly have to do something to assist our students,” said Bob Craig, the moderate Republican from Lubbock. “To do nothing and just push everything back from my perspective is not a solution.”

And further more, everyone seemed to band together in the face of an untrustworthy (in their eyes) legislature. “We send the bill over,” said Geraldine “Tincy” Miller, a longstanding incumbent who just lost her seat for next term, “and we’ve learned the hard way that the legislature, they’re the kings and the queens and they don’t have to [pay] … Okay? We learned the hard way.”

So, just like that, David Bradley, one of the board’s most powerful social conservatives, pushed for a simple solution: supplemental materials to cover the gaps between the textbooks and the new curriculum standards.
And just like that, the decision was made.

Even getting into logistics didn’t prompt a fight. The board had to decide if the supplemental materials would be textbook specific (in other words, book X would have supplement X, book Y, supplement Y) or if one generic supplement would do. The former and current teachers on the board pushed for the tailored approach, but discussion ultimately led to Don McLeroy, famous for creating controversy, winning the board over with the generic idea by emphasizing simplicity.

But don’t think this happy moment is likely to last. The irony was there all along—congenial discussions about science books after the board almost tore itself apart debating the place of evolution in science. When Bradley asked one TEA official if any old textbooks might happen to include all the new standards, she was wry:
“Some of your student expectations are brand-new. They’re not currently in anyone’s textbooks.”