Play It Again, State Board!
The State Board passes non-binding resolution to ensure no “pro-Islam/anti-Christian” bias
Well, shocking no one, the State Board of Education passed the resolution to guard against any “pro-Islamic/anti-Christian” bias in world history textbooks. Perhaps you heard about it—the whole thing made headlines as diverse as NBC Connecticut to The Atlantic to all the way across the actual Atlantic. That’s right, Britain’s Daily Mail covered the debacle.
The board spent almost four hours Friday debating the resolution, which, as I said last week, is non-binding and doesn’t equate to any real action. It argues that in the past, textbooks have shown a strong “pro-Islamic/anti-Christian” bias, which will get worse “as Middle Easterners buy into the U.S. public school textbook oligopoly.” Supporters argued that the document simply pushes publishers to pay closer attention to fairness and balance between major world religions—although the board already can reject textbooks without giving a reason (although that power has been the subject of considerable debate.) Opponents argued the whole thing was about fear-mongering.
Whichever it was, the resolution passed 7-6, after several attempts at amendments and postponements. The three Republicans who are not part of the social conservative bloc voted with the three remaining Democrats; Democratic members Mary Helen Berlanga and Rene Nunez both did not vote. Berlanga was not there all day, while Nunez left early, but had they both been present, the resolution likely would not have passed.
Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network and one of the loudest critics of the board’s social conservatives, kicked off public testimony. She argued the current resolution was “an example of fear mongering and playing politics” and it should be re-written to emphasize balance and fairness between world religions without specifically mentioning Islam or Christianity.
She also pointed out instances in which current textbooks highlight negative moments in Islam’s history, like discussions of Muslim general Tamerlane slaughters in Delhi. That didn’t sit right with Jonathan Saenz of the conservative Liberty Institute.
Apparently the textbooks still mention that Tamerlane has a “magnificent tomb” that “remains a glorious site.” Such terms, Saenz said, showed an implicit support for Islam. “That shows something there that’s a concern,” he told board members, as he argued for the resolution.
Socially conservative member Ken Mercer argued that the resolution was only about sending a message to publishers. “We’re saying [anti-Christian bias] has happened in the past, don’t let it happen again,” he said.
As people continued to speak to the board—mostly in support of the resolution—about their concerns, Texas Education Agency legal council David Anderson got worried there were some misunderstandings. “It’s not having a legal impact on any particular book,” he said.
“Nor does it have any binding effect on any future board!” Chairwoman Gail Lowe threw in.
Possibly, the most memorable testimony came from Mary Bruner, an elderly woman who supported the resolution and worried that Middle Eastern business influences were bringing a strong pro-Islam bias. “I think the Middle Easterners are buying the textbooks!” she explained, exasperated, to board member Lawrence Allen. “They’re buying everything else here!”
When asked her about balance for other religions, like Sikhism, she paused. The religion “must not be too major,” she said, “or we would have heard of it by now.”
When it finally came to the board, the math was already clear—once Nunez left, the board’s social conservatives had the majority they needed. Still, everyone went through the motions; social conservatives explained their support and the rest explained their opposition. Socially conservative member Don McLeroy argued that two “gigantic turning points in all of history” often get ignored—the Jewish belief in monotheism and the “Christmas story” and the resolution will help give them more attention.
But most of the speaking came from the opposition, who must have known they did not have the votes. Democratic member Lawrence Allen, the board’s only Muslim member, argued the resolution was unnecessary, since everyone wanted balance. The resolution, he argued, was unfair because it focused so much on Islam. “It will never speak for me,” he declared.
Democrat Mavis Knight agreed. “The publishers are here,” she said. “They have heard our wishes.” There was no point to passing a resolution, she said, since publishers were aware of the board’s concern.
But all the efforts to stall or kill the resolution failed. Before the final vote, Democratic member Rick Agosto spoke. “This doesn’t make sense,” he said. “It makes this board look cuckoo. Which we are.”
Then the resolution passed.*
*An Epilogue: Tthere was another minor skirmish after the board took a break. Member Barbara Cargill, one of the social conservatives who supported the resolution, discovered that the resolution contained an appendix that no longer was accurate and moved to reconsider the resolution. “This points out exactly the problem!” Craig said. “We wouldn’t take the time to go back and check the accuracy.” But the whole thing hardly mattered—the appendix was struck and the resolution was then passed for a second time.