Texas conservatives lose grip on school text selection

A group that charges that Texas conservatives are effectively censoring school textbooks nationwide is claiming victory in its attempt to modify the state's text selection process.

The Texas State Board of Education, under pressure from a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group, People for the American Way, has agreed to allow parents and education experts who support the use of particular textbooks in the schools to argue their case during selection proceedings.

In the past, only those who objected to the content of certain texts were permitted formally to air their criticisms. Hearings have been dominated by critics determined to limit textbook treatment of such subjects as the theory of evolution and alternative life styles.

Changes in the Texas selection procedure could be felt throughout the country. Texas is the nation's largest textbook market, and publishers acknowledge that they tailor their books to the state's preferences. While California and New York both have larger school populations, both have opted for local instead of statewide selection.

Attempts by conservative organizations to ban books from classrooms and libraries are on the upswing throughout the United States, warns Michael Hudson, Texas director of People for the American Way. The group, organized by television producer Norman Lear to counter the influence of the New Right, drafted the changes that were adopted by the school board in a recent ruling.

The controversy has centered on the theory of Darwinian evolution. To be accepted for use in Texas schools, textbooks have had to comply with the Texas rule that ''textbooks presented for adoption which treat the subject of evolution substantively in explaining the historical origins of humankind shall be edited, if necessary, to clarify that the treatment is theoretical rather than factually verifiable.''

Texas conservatives Mel and Norma Gabler, whose protests have dominated textbook hearings here for more than 20 years, say such restrictions are supported by the public. ''We represent the mainstream of American values,'' Mr. Gabler insists, ''but it's been a process of the two of us standing up against all the publishers, against the Board of Education, and against all the professional educators.''

Gabler says that schoolchildren ''are being cheated because there is a decided bias in textbooks, because our kids are being indoctrinated when they think they are getting all sides presented.'' He argues that in areas such as textbook treatment of evolution as fact, ''pure speculation is being taught to the kids as if it were true, while the facts are censored.'' He predicts that his job of exposing textbook ''biases'' may be more difficult following the ruling.

Mr. Hudson, a native Texan whose three children attend public schools here, calls the ruling ''a major defeat for the New Right on a national level, because in the past they've been able to use our special situation in Texas to impose their narrow views on the nation as a whole.''

With a $60 million Texas order expected this year, the 1983 list approved by the Board of Education here will represent over 5 percent of the $1 billion-plus US textbook market.

The new Texas selection procedure is an important step forward, according to Will Davis, a lawyer and former president of the National School Boards Association who joined the Texas Board of Education this year after 16 years on the Austin school board.

He says Texas will continue having ''a major impact on what publishers put in textbooks.'' This situation leaves the state with ''a major responsibility to pick the best textbooks . . . books that are balanced, accurate, and up to date.'' Mr. Davis says this year's procedural changes ''give everyone equal time to state their opinions'' and open the hearings to ''educational experts who can focus on the issues.''

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