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?

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.

"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."

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."

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