Originally posted: Nov. 25, 2014
Last Tuesday, the Texas State Board of Education held a public hearing to choose which new social studies textbooks will be recommend to school districts in the state. The board was expected to vote to approve the majority of proposed textbooks and smooth the way for what should have been a final procedural vote on Friday. Instead, complaints by right-wing groups torpedoed the adoption process. The board didn’t approve a single textbook and left the door open to 11th-hour political meddling.
Because the 15-member board voted not to adopt any books, publishers were forced to ignore historical fact and make last minute changes to their books to cater to the conservative activists. When the board voted on Friday, many board members (and the public) couldn’t respond to the final changes made to the textbooks they were approving. They hadn’t even seen them—changes that totaled hundreds of pages.
The problems with this textbook adoption process began in 2010, when the education board passed new history standards that require students to “identify the individuals whose principles of laws and government institutions informed the American founding documents, including those of Moses,” and establish how “biblical law” was a major influence on America’s founding.
“Sometimes it boggles my mind the kind of power we have.”
Other standards also placed states’ rights and sectionalism ahead of slavery as a cause of the Civil War; claimed that Joseph McCarthy’s blacklists of Americans were justified because communists had infiltrated the government during the Cold War; and in a section on the influence of art, music, and literature on American society, hip hop was removed for being culturally irrelevant and replaced instead with country music. (An aside: Despite disliking hip hop, Board Member Pat Hardy argued that it should be included because, “These people (hip hop artists) are multi-millionaires … There are not enough black people to buy that. There are white people buying this.”)
Even the conservative Fordham Institute called Texas’ standards “a politicized distortion of history.” Distortion or not, textbook publishers must abide by these standards if they want to secure board approval. For example, McGraw-Hill’s U.S. Government textbook says Moses and the Covenant “contributed to our Constitutional structure.”
Beyond crediting Moses with inspiring the American Constitution, some books mislead students about the scientific consensus on climate change, while others undermine the separation of church and state. Pearson’s American Government textbook originally contained two racist cartoons about affirmative action, including a picture of two aliens (ostensibly from outer space) and the caption, “Relax, we’ll be fine—they’ve got affirmative action.” The Texas Freedom Network, a watchdog organization, hired scholars who catalogued all the problems with the different books.
Political meddling by the Board of Education doesn’t just affect Texas. Because Texas buys nearly 50 million textbooks each year, it has a huge impact on the textbook market at large. School districts all around the country, including some in Louisiana, buy books that were written to meet Texas’ standards, flaws included. Former board Chairman Don McLeroy, who was instrumental in passing many of these standards, once said, “Sometimes it boggles my mind the kind of power we have.” McLeroy hadn’t seen the current textbooks, but after reading an article in Politico about their references to the “Christian heritage,” he said he was “thrilled” because that was the goal of his standards.
This entire process is about politics, not history.
In September, the Board held its first meeting to allow the public to comment on the content of the proposed textbooks. (I’ve testified at multiple hearings in opposition to these textbooks on behalf of Americans United for Separation of Church and State’s Houston Chapter.) Public criticism of the books mounted, including from more than 100,000 people who signed petitions calling for climate science denial to be removed from the textbooks. Southern Methodist University history professor Kathleen Wellman testified that these books would cause students to believe “that Moses was the first American.” READ MORE