Much-debated Texas textbooks fail to draw the 'yes' votes needed for approval

After a long, contentious battle, the Texas Board of Education has not been able to get the votes it needs to approve a hotly debated new set of textbooks.

Eric Gay/AP
Texas Board of Education board members raise their hands to ask questions about new textbooks up for adoption and use in classrooms statewide.

At a time when everything from shrimp to video games to school lunches have become a political football, it's no surprise that textbooks have become a source of contentious political controversy.

That's particularly true in Texas, where the state's Board of Education failed to get the votes necessary to approve a batch of more than 100 new social studies and history textbooks which drawn intense debate and criticism from both the right and left.

Left-leaning advocates and academic have criticized the proposed textbooks for overstating the influence of religion on early American democracy, including exaggerating biblical figure Moses's importance to the founding fathers. Meanwhile, conservative critics said the books were too pro-Islam and downplayed the importance of Christianity in US history.

In a process that at times has seemed to veer toward the ridiculous, negative comments about the books have flown thick and fast and become dizzingly diverse: The books promote communism. They promote Islam. They overstate the importance of Moses. They fail to tell students how the United Nations shared misleading propaganda about climate change. They lean too far to the left – and they lean too far to the right.

All told there were reported to be more than 1,500 complaints raised about the books.

The stakes are high: Approved textbooks form the basis of study for more than 5 million public school students in Texas, the second most populous states. And because Texas is a significant textbook market, the books approved in that state influence the teaching materials used in many other states.

Which is why political advocates have fought hard to shape the textbooks to their liking - and why the Board of Education wasn't able to muster the support to approve the books.

As we explained in an earlier post on the issue, it's about more than just books.

"[T]he fight highlights a larger political battle Texans are engaging in over academic standards and the shaping of statewide curricula."

Both sides claim the other is distorting history and social studies instruction for political benefit.

"Texas is in a leadership position and at the moment, they are abusing that position," said Emile Lester, an associate professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia, who wrote a critical review of some of the U.S. history textbooks. According to Lester, the textbooks "overemphasized the role the biblical figure Moses and Judeo-Christian traditions played in the formation of the nations' founding documents such as the Constitution, while paying little attention to constitutional provisions on the separation of church and state," as reported by Reuters

A recent Politico article echoes Lester. “[T]he controversy in Texas ... hints at rising tensions across the U.S. over academic standards, as conservatives have mobilized aggressively to shape what students learn in science, social studies and beyond. The Texas textbooks, most of them from major publishing houses, were written to align with instructional standards that the Board of Education approved back in 2010 – with the explicit intention of tugging social studies teaching to the right.”

Conservative advocates disagree. They complain that the books omit the achievements of President Ronald Reagan and argue that the books ignore or downplay the issue of violence in Islam.

“I think our students deserve textbooks that are historically accurate and not politically correct," Amy Jo Baker, a retired history teacher and former social studies director for the San Antonio Independent School District, told the AP, adding that she wants textbooks that "reflect not America as the bad guy, but America as an exceptional nation.”

Other controversial issues raised by both sides include sections on climate change, affirmative action, segregation, and social welfare programs.

According to Reuters, the board, comprised of 10 Republicans and 5 Democrats, has asked publishers to make changes critics have demanded. Still, the board wasn't able to get preliminary approval of the books, setting them up for a high stakes final vote Friday, when the board will approve the books or else miss the deadline to get them to the state's 1,000-plus school districts by September 2015.

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