Backstory: How The Texas Textbook Revision Came To Be

Backstory: How The Texas Textbook Revision Came To Be

In Texas, Thomas Jefferson is set to be removed from the textbook standards explaining how Enlightenment thinkers have influenced revolutions since 1750. Replacing him will be the French theologian John Calvin.

After a long and emotionally-charged debate, the Texas Board of Education -- dominated by a group of conservatives -- voted last week to make this and a host of other changes to the state curriculum, a move that has wide-ranging implications for students across the country.

How did this happen?

A Conservative Clique On The Board

The Board of Education consists of 15 elected officeholders. The split is 10-5 in favor of Republicans. Of those 10, seven are highly conservative.

"This is a board controlled by extremists who have determined to turn Social Studies classrooms into a tool to promote their ideology," said Dan Quinn, spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network. "They've been successful in turning what should be a curriculum document into a political manifesto."

(TFN is a nonpartisan group which "advances a mainstream agenda of religious freedom and individual liberties to counter the religious right," according to its Web site.)

"We're not [partisan]," said former chairman and current board member Don McLeroy, a Republican and a dentist with an engineering degree.

The Board members "are not being guided by any sort of rigorous academic standards. This is a purely political fight for them," said Ed Brayton, editor of the Michigan Messenger. Brayton is also the President of Michigan Citizens for Science, and has written extensively about the Texas school board on his blog.

Seven of the most conservative board members tend to vote en bloc. Brayton calls the group the "Wingnut Brigade."

"They're very cliquish," fellow board member Mary Helen Berlanga, a Democrat from Corpus Christi, Tex. said of the seven. "They come in together, and they go out together, and they leave in cars together. They already have their agenda by the time they're here. Whether they're talking on the phone, emailing each other, I don't know. "

The group of Republicans on the board includes David Bradley, a Republican from Beaumont and an insurance and real estate executive whose children were home-schooled. (Two other board members have also chosen to either home-school or send their children to private schools.)

Last Thursday, a discussion arose over how to describe the United States' economy:

Scholars on the curriculum teams had argued that "capitalism" and "free market" are commonly used terms in economics courses and everyday discourse...

Terri Leo (R- Spring): "I do think words mean things. . . . I see no reason, frankly, to compromise with liberal professors from academia."

Patricia Hardy (R- Weatherford) notes that the scholar (Larry Wolken) who recommended that "capitalism" and "free market" be used in the standards teaches at Texas A&M and is a Republican. He is "not some kind of crazy liberal," she says.

Ken Mercer (R- San Antonio) said that he thought capitalism is a good word, but "academics don't."

After the discussion, the board voted to strike all instances of "capitalism" from the state's curriculum. In an interview, McLeroy told the Huffington Post that he was not paying full attention during that stretch of the long meeting, but defended the decision.

"It was not a liberal academic plot to make capitalism [a bad word]," he said. "When I heard it, I just heard it as a general statement... I thought it was a statement on liberal professors."

The Michigan Messenger's Brayton, who has been closely following the debate, put the decision in context: "They view [current] textbooks as being liberally biased, so their way to combat it is to throw in some things that their side wants and take out some of the things that they disagree with, regardless of the opinion of academics."

"Oh they're very clever," Berlanga said. "And they cover up their tracks."

An Emphasis On Christianity

Thomas Jefferson's status as an Enlightenment era figure is in jeopardy -- at least in Texas.

McLeroy wanted "to focus just on the enlightenment folks," he said. "The enlightenment, the way I understand it, are the ones like Montesquieu, Locke, Hobbes, all those folks. And Jefferson was in another generation. The founders were building on the enlightenment."

McLeroy said he wanted students to learn that the French Revolution was built on different ideals than the American Revolution.

"In the Americas," he said, "it had a different basis. I'm not the scholar that can just pop those things out, I just have my general impressions."

Berlanga, one of the Democrats on the board, had a different take.

"They talk about the Founding Fathers like they were all Christians," she said. "There were a couple that may have believed what she [Leo] believed, they weren't necessarily of her religion, so I think she may have realized that with Thomas Jefferson, and deleted him, though she may have given another reason for him in doing it."

(Jefferson was a Deist, not a Christian).

On Thursday, the board struck down -- on another straight 10-5 party line vote -- a measure by Democratic board member Mavis Knight to "examine the reasons the Founding Fathers protected religious freedom in America by barring government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion over all others."

In other words, one of the key freedoms of this country -- freedom of religion.

"Her amendment was an interpretation," McLeroy said. "That's why I voted against it."

He added: "You're going to have checks and balances in the government -- that's a biblical viewpoint of the nature of man, that man is fallen, is a sinner. You don't use the Christian language, but that was the sign of the times."

Brayton called that interpretation "profoundly contrary to the historical record."

"John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison wrote the Federalist Papers to explain each and every provision of the Constitution to a population that was overwhelmingly Christian and convince them to vote for it. If they could have pointed to biblical sources for those provisions, that would have been a very powerful argument in favor of ratification. Yet not once is the Bible mentioned anywhere in those 85 essays. And not once, according to the notes of those in attendance, was the Bible ever referenced at the constitutional convention in Philadelphia to justify a concept or provision," according to Brayton.

"Religion," Berlanga said. "Everything was about Religion. There was one [amendment] that said Battle of San Jacinto gave religious freedom. And one lady in the audience came up to me later and said 'religious freedom? That's when the Texas Rangers began hanging the Hispanics.

"When you vote against them you almost seem like an atheist, so you gotta be real careful," Berlanga said of the other board members. "I'm Catholic. I believe in Christ, but I don't think we can be forcing our religion down anybody's throat. We can't force them to have the same philosophy we have. And when people arrived in Jamestown, it was all about 'freedom of religion,' not that they were going to follow one religion."

The board, Brayton said, is ultimately inviting a legal challenge, and "they don't care."

"They're oblivious to legal reality," Brayton added, "and convinced that they're going to win these battles, even though they've lost for decades. It's old wine in new skin."

Texas schools already have elective Bible history courses. The changes would put the bible in Social Studies, to be included in history curriculum.

A Re-Write Of American History

In Texas, where half of the four million students are Hispanic, references to the cultural contributions of Latinos are being pruned from the curriculum.

"Dolores Huerta, co-founder of United Farm Workers of America, was removed in the third-grade standards because she's a socialist," the Texas Freedom Network's Quinn wrote in an e-mail. "They left Helen Keller in the same standard, apparently not realizing that she was a staunch socialist."

"What's the difference?" asked Berlanga.

Last Thursday night, Berlanga left the board meeting in protest.

"I've had it. This is it. I'm leaving for the evening," Berlanga said. "The board is pretending this is white America, Hispanics don't exist. I've never seen a rewrite like this. This is a step backwards."

(Berlanga left in response to a claim by Leo that stereotyping is "sometimes it's a positive thing.")

Huerta was not the only prominent Hispanic left out of the curriculum. Santa Barraza, a Mexican-American painter and teacher whose family is from Texas, was removed after a board member found a painting of hers "questionable." She was replaced by Tex Avery, a Texas-born animator famous for creating well-known cartoon characters like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck.

In a sign of how sweeping the changes were, hip hop music was removed as a cultural influence, and the Civil Rights movements was glossed over.

"We're dealing with people who don't want to face ... reality," Berlanga said. "They don't want to deal with the truth. They don't want to be reminded that, in our past, America made mistakes. And when you have the U.S. cavalry that killed all those Native Americans, and then you have the Texas Rangers who killed all those Hispanics who did not commit any crimes, and have the Ku Klux Klan, you don't have any of that. They didn't try and put in this information."

What the group wanted, however, was an amendment offered by McLeroy to require students to "describe presidential actions and Congressional votes by party to address minority rights in the United States, including desegregation of the Armed Forces, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965."

The Texas Freedom Network speculated that this amendment (with the party clause later stripped) was little more than a ploy to show Republicans voting for civil rights.

A Loose Relationship With The Facts

In a discussion over economics standards, one board member said that he had never heard of Milton Friedman, the famous economist and Nobel Prize winner. Another amendment was introduced to analyze the link between the decline of the dollar and the creation of the Federal Reserve, later changed and amended as a link between the decline of the dollar and the detachment of the dollar from the gold standard.

In January, the board removed the children's story "Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?" from the third grade reading list because its author, Bill Martin Jr., shares the name of DePaul University professor Bill Martin, who wrote "Ethical Marxism: The Categorical Imperative Of Liberation."

(On further review, the story was added back to the curriculum last week.)

"We have been so critical of other countries who indoctrinate children and brainwash them," she added. "And I feel that that's what we're preparing them to do."

A discussion over gender roles was even more puzzling. The current curriculum asks students to examine how the traditional roles of men and women had changed since the 1950's. But the seven staunch conservatives on the board said the feared the text would promote trans-sexualism and sex change operations.

"They take everything to the extreme," Berlanga said. "They don't trust the teachers, they don't trust the school districts. It has to be their way or the highway."

One amendment required students to learn about the "unintended consequences" of the Great Society, affirmative action, and Title IX programs, and another replaced references to "democratic societies" to references to "republican societies."

The Path Forward

There is still a chance that between now and May -- the public comment period before the standards are officially adopted -- some of what the board decided last week could be undone.

"Whether it's too late for social studies, I don't know," Berlanga said. She added that she hopes that teachers and the public will voice their complaints.

"The far-right groups have been very well organized, and frankly, they have the backing of a national news network," Quinn said. "Fox has gone wall-to-wall coverage on this over the last few days. They've had representatives of these groups talking constantly about Texas teachers and curriculum writers taking our Christmas out of the standards, founding fathers out of the standards. When conservatives and Fox claim that there are radical leftists who hate Christians and are removing the founding fathers from the standards... they are lying."

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