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Boards of Education Rewriting History and Science

In January, members of the predominantly conservative Texas Board of Education discussed revising the state's social studies curriculum to include highly partisan perspectives on civil rights, the role of government, and American history in general.  Some of the more divisive suggestions range from banning mention of activist and union organizer Cesar Chavez to citing Ronald Reagan’s "leadership in restoring national confidence' following Jimmy Carter’s presidency."  The Board also discussed instructing students to "describe the causes and key organizations and individuals of the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s, including Phyllis Schlafly, the Contract With America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority and the National Rifle Association.”  There were further proposals to reference the United States as a Christian nation with a divine mission in the world.

This is not a new trend.  Just last year, the same Board urged schools to discuss the "weaknesses" of the scientific theory of evolution.  Unfortunately, Texas' ultimate decision on its curriculum will likely reverberate throughout the country.  The state's education fund is the largest in the nation, with $22 billion in resources.  A sizable share goes to purchasing and distributing 48 million textbooks a year.  Since Texas is one of the nation's largest consumers of textbooks, the educational standards the state Board of Education adopts not only impact Texas students, but can strongly influence the content of textbooks purchased in other states as well.

Attempts to input conservative ideology in the classroom: Just as troubling, there have been several attempts to insert socially conservative views in K-12 education across the country. 

  • Back in 1999, the Oklahoma Textbook Committee required that publishers who did business in the state insert a disclaimer in biology textbooks stating that evolution is “a controversial theory which some scientists present as a scientific explanation for the origin of living things, such as plants and humans." 
  • A similar effort was undertaken in Georgia in 2004, but public backlash forced the state's superintendent to restore references to evolution to middle and high school textbooks.  
  • Following Dover, Pennsylvania school district's 2004 decision to require classroom discussion of intelligent design, opponents challenged the decision in court.  In 2005, a federal court  in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District ruled the district could not teach intelligent design, as the theory "cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents" and does not respect the constitutional separation of church and state. 

Progressive Mobilization Against Censorship of Science:  Fortunately, progressives have combated conservative censorship of issues like evolution for years.  The Kansas Citizens for Science (KCFS) have consistently challenged extreme right views expressed on the state's Board of Education.  The organization played a crucial role in challenging the Board's 1999 decision to remove aspects of the theory of evolution.  The Board lost its conservative majority following the controversial vote, to only regain it a few years later and push to identify evolution as a flawed theory and require discussions of intelligent design.  In 2006, conservatives again lost their majority, partly due to the work of advocacy groups like KCFS, which led to the adoption of new science-based education standards to replace the anti-evolution ideology.

There are several other gorups across the country working to promote and protect science education.  Citizens for Science, a network of state-based groups, formed to push back against right-wing censorship of science textbooks.

Challenging the Texas Textbook Censors:  Placing ideology over academics is an extremely troubling prospect that endangers the public education system.  It is quite telling that last May, Texas Sen. Letica Van de Putte criticized the board as the “laughingstock of the nation” under the leadership of Don McLeroy, a dentist and self-identified Christian fundamentalist.  That same month, the Texas Senate blocked the reconfirmation of McLeroy as head of the Board of Education due to concerns about his religious views.  McLeroy, who does not support the separation between church and state and describes himself as a "'young earth' creationist who believes dinosaurs once co-existed with people," remains an outspoken advocate along with other conservative ideologues who hold seven out of fifteen seats on the Board.

Texas' March 2 primary includes eight seats on the Education Board.  Accordingly, voters will have the opportunity to help shape the debate and decide whether they want rightwing zealots rewriting history.

Resources:
Kansas Citizens for Science
Citizens for Science
National Center for Science Education
Anti-Defamation League - Religious Doctrine in the Science Classroom; Putting Education & Religious Freedom at Risk
National Science Teachers Association - The Teaching of Evolution
The New York Times - How Christian Were the Founders?
The San Antonio Express-News - Texas Voters to Referee School "Culture War"