The year’s hottest education policy debate wasn’t about vouchers or school funding or teacher performance pay—it was about CSCOPE, the once-obscure curriculum program built for Texas schools that’s been targeted for destruction by tea party activists.
On a stage at the University of Texas-Tyler on Saturday night, Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) and State Board of Education vice chairman Thomas Ratliff (R-Mount Pleasant) debated the program as the crowd giggled, applauded and occasionally shouted reminders that “This is America!”
CSCOPE has been under fire for almost a year, for a supposed anti-American slant in its sample lessons. Patrick gave CSCOPE’s critics an early boost by grilling the program’s administrators in his first hearing as chair of the Senate Education Committee, drawing attention from Fox News and Glenn Beck. Ratliff is a longtime defender of the program, which he says is an important tool for rural school districts.
As a welcome to Saturday’s debate, CSCOPE critics had signs—and even a car parked outside—urging, “Impeach Ratliff.” But throughout the 90-minute event, Ratliff’s defense of CSCOPE—or at least school districts’ right to choose whether to use the program—drew much of the crowd’s applause.
Shortly into his introduction Patrick boomed, “This should not be a fight about issues between adults. The number one issue should be, regardless of which side you are on in this debate, what’s best for the students.”
He and Ratliff spent most of the debate clashing on CSCOPE’s financial transparency and its accessibility to parents asking to see lessons.
Ratliff credited Patrick with helping to force CSCOPE’s lesson plans—which were once proprietary documents only available to subscribers—out into the public domain. Now they’re available online.
But Patrick wasn’t satisfied. “You should be concerned that, for six years, CSCOPE was violating the law,” Patrick said. “We cannot turn a blind eye and say ‘It’s alright. We take public taxpayer money, form a private company, we don’t have an address, we don’t have anything.’ You couldn’t find someone who worked at CSCOPE. It didn’t exist,” he said. “It did not exist.”
Patrick stoked vague fears about what more CSCOPE could be hiding. “What don’t we know?” he repeated.
To many of Patrick’s accusations, though, Ratliff had an answer. When Patrick said that the Texas Tribune conducted a study finding that children in CSCOPE schools performed poorly, Ratliff countered that the “study” was actually conducted by a 9th-grade business class using the Tribune’s online data.
“He’s pointing to a 9th-grade spreadsheet. I’m pointing to an email from a superintendent right here in Tyler; the superintendent in Llano that just defended himself against a frivolous lawsuit; and two doctoral theses: one done by a private Christian university known as Baylor University, the other done at Texas Tech University,” Ratliff responded. “The facts are clear, and if you look at the facts, CSCOPE does not impair, but it enhances student performance.”
Patrick argued that a parent was charged $700 to access CSCOPE lesson plans, but Ratliff explained the charges weren’t for access, but for the paper copies the parent wanted to make. “I personally don’t want a school district giving somebody 10,000 copies for free. I want to educate kids, not be a copy machine for somebody who wants to look at this stuff.”
Ratliff referred often to an online repository of documents about CSCOPE, and encouraged people to fact-check him. (At Dropbox.com, log in as “[email protected]” with the password “CSCOPE”.) Patrick suggested this was just a distraction. “You can have the biggest Dropbox and all the documents you want. You’re just wrong,” he said.
JoAnn Fleming of Grassroots America, a CSCOPE critic and a panelist on Saturday’s debate, expressed concern that “with the NSA issue in the news,” CSCOPE might be making student information available to third party vendors.
“The only people that have usernames and passwords in CSCOPE are teachers. CSCOPE contains zero. Zero student data. … It’s just not true,” Ratliff said. “Any accusations of data mining are false, and it’s fear mongering designed to scare parents,” he continued.
Patrick was not dissuaded. “First of all, I didn’t think the government was eavesdropping on the telephone. I didn’t know the IRS was going after conservative Tea Party groups and citizens. I didn’t know that the government could read my email,” he said. “And so while, Thomas, I agree at this point in time there’s no evidence of that, I’m very concerned about the future.”
When Fleming pressed further, Ratliff explained that teachers print out assignments and pass them out to students. “So, unless there’s a Xerox machine in the sky that takes those and mines that data, I can’t tell you.”
The debate marked a high point in the personal rivalry between Patrick and Ratliff, elected officials serving on separate bodies of state government who had, until now, only ribbed at one another over social media.
Patrick chided Ratliff Saturday night for never having reviewed more than a few of CSCOPE’s lesson plans. But when Ratliff asked Patrick how many he’d read, Patrick said he hadn’t read any. It was a surprising moment, highlighting just how far the politics of CSCOPE are removed from its use in the classroom.
After the debate, Patrick said that Ratliff “made some valid points,” but could not remember any of them specifically. “Overall, he could not answer any of the questions that I put forward,” Patrick said. “I was surprised that the educators were cheering on something that they don’t know a lot about, and that they’re not concerned.”
Ratliff said he was confused by Patrick’s persistence in going after the curriculum. “If the issue was transparency, mission accomplished. But he’s not stopping. And the non-CSCOPE schools are next, because as soon as the Tea Party finds something in their curriculum they don’t like, they’re going after them,” Ratliff said.
He said he was disappointed by the political antics Patrick and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst have used to prolong the CSCOPE controversy. “What this has become is a tug-of-war between two guys who want to be Lieutenant Governor,” Ratliff said. “And they’re using public schools as the rope.”