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A battle over books in Texas

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Textbookmakers, they argue, sometimes rewrite history by overplaying the accomplishments of woman and racial minorities and editing out what they believe to be more important material.

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"White males are often underrepresented," says Venable. "I see publishers as trying to meet requirements by putting women and minorities in [and] ignoring significant events."

In 1995 the Texas legislature passed a law stating that the state board of education may reject books only on the basis of factual errors and not due to disputes over ideology.

But at the same time, state law requires the board to approve books that promote democracy, patriotism, and the free-enterprise system - leaving the door open to disagreements of a more subjective nature.

In Texas, textbooks are updated in waves. Each year, different topics come up for revision. Under consideration this year are family studies, career studies, and biology. The subject of biology is usually the trigger for particularly fierce controversy.

While some groups accept evolution as correct science that should be taught to biology students, others argue that it is only a theory and thus should either be presented differently, or alongside other "scientific theories" including that of Intelligent Design, the belief in an intelligent creator.

Some retort that ID is not science at all, but religion dressed up "in a lab coat."

Files available at the Texas Education Association Webpage for the textbook-review process feature more than 1,000 pages of commentary from public hearings, much on this topic. Whichever side prevails, however, in any of the debates over textbooks, no Texas school is required to buy the books approved by the board of education. But the majority do.

Books deemed conforming - meeting the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) requirements - are appealing to in-state schools because they can use state funds to buy them.

But even in schools that buy the books, there are always some teachers who either ignore or supplement them.

Alex Hendrex, a history teacher for 10 years at Kealing Junior High School in Austin, long avoided textbooks.

He objected to certain characterizations of history he regarded as inaccurate.

For example, he says, when it comes to New World explorers, "the emphasis in [the state-approved history] textbook is the wonderful accomplishments of Columbus," with just a small sidebar mentioning enslavement of the natives.

Mr. Hendrex has recently begun using the state-approved text, but only in conjunction with other assigned reading. Hendrex says his goal isn't to sway the students one way or the other, but to have them compare accounts. He'd like to see them think critically, draw their own conclusions, and learn to question sources.

Hendrex's colleague, English teacher Kristen Scott, collaborates with fellow teacher Sarah Waggoner to develop curriculum not focused on textbooks.

But she still relies on textbooks to teach basics such as grammar.

"Some kids find textbooks comforting - they're familiar," she says. "I use them the same way I use any other resource - I don't depend solely on them."

Staff writer Kris Axtman contributed to this story.