Texas wrangles over bias in school textbooks
The state's annual battle over content has begun, with publishers increasingly solicitous to special interests.
What if a junior-high school textbook wrongly stated that John Marshall was the United States' first Supreme Court Chief Justice, instead of John Jay? Or that the Louisiana Purchase occurred in 1804, not 1803?Skip to next paragraph
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No one would fault textbook publishers for fixing factual errors likethese found in recent textbooks.
But, when it comes to "fixing" harder to define social or political biases, what happens when publishers eager to make a sale are willing to edit content that special-interest groups object to or even submit their books to those groups for input prior to publication?
The practice of self censorship is increasingly apparent here in Texas, where battles over textbook content are epic. For years, publishers have been held to the fire by conservatives who could make or break a textbook. But now, critics say, publishers are allowing conservative groups likely to raise the biggest fusstodiscuss content before the books are made available for public review.
"The publishers know the religious right will go after a handful of books every year and nobody wants it to be their book," says Samantha Smoot, executive director of the Austin-based Texas Freedom Network, a watchdog group that monitors the religious right. "Texas has really become a testing ground, when in comes to textbooks, for what the far right is able to get away with."
The annual textbook battle began last Wednesday as the State Board of Education opened public hearings to consider 2003 social studies texts for all grades a $345 million purchase. Special-interest groups were here in force for the day-long event. The lobbying roster of 70 speakers included Hispanic college students and the NAACP wanting more minorities and women represented in textbooks, Christian groups seeking more conservative interpretations of issues, and social-studies teachers arguing against such tinkering.
Ever since well-known Texans Mel and Norma Gabler began pouring over textbooks in the '60s in search of anti-Christian bias, critics have charged that the conservative right was trying to interject its agenda into the classroom. Conservatives over the years have battled such things as a photo of a woman carrying a briefcase, the theory of evolution, and "overkill of emphasis on cruelty to slaves."
In 1995, the legislature intervened and passed a law that said the State Board of Education could only reject books based on factual errors, not ideology.
But the board is also mandated by state law to approve books that are made of quality materials and that promote democracy, patriotism, and the free-enterprise system. And conservative board members are finding ways to stretch the definitions to suit their beliefs.
Two recent examples: The state board rejected an environmental science book last year, in part, because it put the US and the free enterprise system in a bad light as significant players in global warming. And, earlier this year, a history text was withdrawn by the publisher after board members objected to references of rampant prostitution in the American West in the 1800s.
Conservative groups contend ideas such as these are un-American or anti-free enterprise and should not be taught to children.
That would be fine, critics say, if decisions by the State Board of Education solely affected children in the Lone Star State. But because the textbook market in Texas is so large and financially attractive with 4.1 million public school children it is second only to California in volume of books purchased publishers often use books approved here nationwide.