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Texas wrangles over bias in school textbooks

The state's annual battle over content has begun, with publishers increasingly solicitous to special interests.

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"We're the 900-pound gorilla in the room," says board member David Bradley, referring to the clout Texas has in the publishing industry. "It's nice to be king."

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Mr. Bradley revels in one tactic he tried to use to reject a math text in 1997. He objected to the book's discussions of poetry, the Vietnam War, and jalapeño recipes. Because his objections involved no factual errors and the new law prevented him from objecting on ideological grounds, he attacked the quality of the book by ripping its binding off.

"The pendulum had swung so far in favor of political correctness," he says. "Now the pendulum is swinging the other direction."

While last year's focus on new science books produced some fireworks, Joe Bill Watkins, a lawyer with the Association of American Publishers in Washington, believes this year's battle over social studies books "offers a lot more potential for differences of opinion.... This is a delicate time. There's a lot at stake here."

The 29 publishers that submitted textbooks this year were all on hand at last week's first public hearing, anxious to know how their books will fare and what will be asked of them. .

At least some of the publishers provided their books prior to public review to the Texas Citizens for a Sound Economy, says Peggy Venable of that conservative group.

"Some folks here today disagree. They don't want American values reinforced in our schools," said Rep. Rick Green at the hearing. "But the vast majority of Texans think it is the right thing to do, that it is the primary purpose of our education system."

Some, however, believe the primary purpose of education is to embrace differences of opinion and encourage critical thinking.

The first book to be rejected by the state board since its new directive in 1995 was one such book: "Environmental Science: Creating a Sustainable Future." Used in colleges for the past 20 years, it was submitted for advanced-placement science classes. It received preliminary approval by the textbook committee of the Texas Education Agency. But school-board members rejected the text after a the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) report criticized it for statements about global warming and destruction of the environment – especially those that pointed the US role in these problems.

Dean DeChambeau, of the book's Massachusetts publisher, Jones and Bartlett, says the company agreed to fix the three factual errors found in the book. But of the other changes suggested by the TPPF report on the book, he says, "We steadfastly refused ... because they wanted us to replace what they perceived as biased material with their own biased material."

Mr. DeChambeau believes the school board was heavily influenced by the TPPF. For its part, the foundation says it only asks respected college professors and schoolteachers to review the books, and does not question their political leanings. It says it is pushing no social or political agenda.

"There is absolutely no censorship here," says Chris Patterson, TPPF's director of educational research. The group recently released its findings on 28 of the proposed social studies books. None of them received failing grades.

More specific problems are sure to crop up in public hearings, in August and September. Board member Geraldine Miller says the process is about getting "the best books, error-free, for our children."