Opinion

Hey, Texas, don't mess with textbooks: Public schools are no place for partisan agendas

Texas conservatives want to cut Thomas Jefferson, César Chávez, Edward Kennedy, and other 'liberals' from textbooks.

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Battles over school curricula are not new. Now, it’s not just Darwin that’s the issue. If the far-right Republican majority on the Texas Board of Education has its way, many of the 48 million textbooks it buys per year, for 10 years, will represent a Republican partisan agenda and a new emphasis on Christian beliefs.

On March 12, the board gave preliminary approval to more than 100 such amendments, which skew public school curriculum and rewrite US history from a conservative perspective.

But the purpose of a public school's curriculum is not to push one particular viewpoint. According to the National Council for Social Studies (NCSS), an effective social studies curriculum should provide students with an understanding of the multiple forces that affect civic issues throughout history, in order to create a base from which citizens can contribute to democracy.

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“I do believe there are board members on the ultraright who have an agenda,” said Judy Brodigan, an educator who contributed to the social studies curriculum guidelines. “Our job is not to take a viewpoint. It’s to present sides fairly.”

After the Texas Board of Education deleted certain figures – such as Thomas Jefferson, César Chávez, and Edward Kennedy – from the state’s curriculum, the Christian conservatives on the board succeeded in emphasizing what they perceive as Christianity’s role in our nation’s founding.

Former board member Don McLeroy is a dentist and a self-avowed Christian fundamentalist who openly states how his religious values guide his crusade to adjust textbooks. Mr. McLeroy, the most influential conservative involved in the curriculum changes, is well known for his extreme statements dismissing evidence of evolution in debates about Darwinism last year. This year, he candidly discussed how he applies direct pressure to textbook companies in a New York Times article, “How Christian Were the Founders?”

McLeroy’s sway with education standards highlights another unsettling fact: Unlike the trained teachers who wrote the original social studies guidelines, the board members revising the curriculum lack the qualifications necessary to shape classroom guidelines.

Educators are alarmed not only because the Texas curriculum guidelines were made by unqualified sources, but also because the changes to standards in

Texas affect textbooks across the country. Texas’ $22 billion education fund is among the nation’s largest educational endowments in the country, which definitively influences how educational publishers tailor their products to fit other states.

“This issue is bigger than Texas,” said an Ohio State University professor in a discussion thread with other NCSS members. “To have politicians rewriting history to suit their view of the world is about as anti-social studies as I can imagine. Reminds me of social studies when I worked in Malawi under the one-man rule of Hastings Banda.”

Efforts to include Latinos in the social studies curriculum were repeatedly defeated, despite the significant Hispanic population in Texas.

But the conservatives did ensure that students learn about “the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s,” adding Phyllis Schlafly, the Moral Majority, and the National Rifle Association. Another approved amendment inserted the conservatives’ contested and negative stance on legislation that sought to achieve equality for women and minorities. Students will be required to study “the unintended consequences” of the Great Society legislation, affirmative action, and Title IX.

In economics, the board’s Republicans replaced “capitalism” with the “U.S. free enterprise system” to imply that the market thrives best absent excessive government intervention – a perspective of US economics subject to change with the times and events such as the recent banking crisis.

Then there’s the arresting and unconstitutional introduction of religion into a public school curriculum. Christian conservatives’ changes require teachers in Texas to stress the perceived Judeo-Christian influences of the nation’s Founding Fathers, but not to highlight the philosophical rationale for the separation of church and state.

In fact, the board’s seven Christian conservatives overtly believe that America has a preordained mission to emphatically practice Christian values.

Cynthia Dunbar, a Christian activist on the Texas board, is candid about her agenda to put the Christian “truth” into the school system in her book “One Nation Under God.”

Although Ms. Dunbar spearheaded the amendment that succeeded in removing Thomas Jefferson from the curriculum, primarily because he penned the phrase “separation of church and state,” it does not alter the fact that the Founders used the First Amendment to create separate spheres for government and religion.

Using public schools to push forward Christian values violates that division.

Further, the Supreme Court historically has shown deference to Jefferson’s separationist views, establishing the position that “No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion.”

Dunbar’s curriculum amendment uses a public system to foster her personal mix of ideological, not historical, Christian nation beliefs. There is certainly no consensus on the assertion that the Founding Fathers intended us to be Christian.

Yes, many of the Founding Fathers were Christian. But others, like Jefferson, were deists or even atheists. Despite their individual beliefs, they united behind the First Amendment, wherein a Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.

In a recent election for Texas Board of Education slots, McLeroy, thankfully, was defeated by a moderate Republican, Thomas Ratliff, who said, “My attitude is this country was founded by a group of men who were Christians but who didn’t want the government dictating religion, and that’s exactly what McLeroy and his colleagues are trying to do.” Mr. Ratliff’s opposition to conservatives in his own party demonstrates that civic issues contain multiple perspectives – an essential reminder for the aggressive Christian conservative bloc that sought to replace the public school curriculum with their own agenda.

The changes made by the Texas board are now open to public comment. A final vote is slated for May. Despite the recent board elections, most expect the conservatives’ agenda to remain intact because the Republicans still have a majority.

But perhaps with more national attention on this issue, there’s a chance that the decisions in May will rebalance the K-12 curriculum. If not, the new Texas textbooks will become part of history, which informs involvement in civic issues.

Taraneh Ghajar Jerven is a freelance writer.

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