texas board of education, don mcleroy
AP Photo/Harry Cabluck
Don McLeroy, former Texas State Board of Education chairman, talks with Chairwoman Gail Lowe.

New Texas Curriculum Stirs Debate Over Politics in the Classroom

March 17, 2010 01:30 PM
by James Sullivan
An “ultraconservative” voting bloc on the Texas Board of Education has pushed through curriculum changes that have elicited criticism from liberals and historians, and could impact the textbooks used by students outside the state.

Ideologically Divided

On Friday, March 12, after three days of contentious meetings, the Texas Board of Education passed a series of controversial changes to the state’s social studies curriculum. According to The New York Times, this new curriculum “will put a conservative stamp on history … stressing the superiority of American capitalism, questioning the Founding Fathers’ commitment to a purely secular government and presenting Republican political philosophies in a more positive light.”

Former board chair and departing member Dr. Don McLeroy said of the vote, “We are adding balance. History has already been skewed. Academia is skewed too far to the left.”

Approval for the amendments was won on a 10-5 vote, which fell along political and racial lines. The board’s five democratic members, who are all black or Hispanic, emerged from the meetings exasperated.

After being stymied in her efforts to include more Latino figures in the curriculum, Democratic board member Mary Helen Berlanga stormed out of a meeting last Thursday, saying, “They can just pretend this is a white America and Hispanics don’t exist. … They are going overboard, they are not experts, they are not historians. They are rewriting history, not only of Texas but of the United States and the world.”

According to the Houston Chronicle, board member Terri Leo “called the proposal ‘a world class document’ and told her Democratic colleagues the board has ‘included more minorities and historical events than ever before ... I am very disappointed at those allegations because they are simply not true.’”

The new curriculum standards will impact what material appears in the state’s new textbooks, scheduled to arrive in the fall of 2011. Due to the fact that Texas is one of the country’s largest textbook markets, changes made to the state’s textbooks are often adopted by other states.

In the wake of the meetings, however, textbook publishers have attempted to downplay the influence the Texas standards will have on other states. “One publisher said Tuesday that changes in technology, including the introduction of online components, make it easier and cheaper to tailor textbooks to specific states and requirements.”

The Changes

Since January the board has made more than 100 amendments to the Texas curriculum. According to The Washington Post, “The curriculum downplays the role of Thomas Jefferson among the founding fathers, questions the separation of church and state and says that the U.S. government was infiltrated by communists during the Cold War.”

Under the new standards, Ronald Reagan will receive greater attention, as will the “conservative resurgence” of the ’80s and ’90s, through study of organizations such as the Heritage Foundation and the National Rifle Association, and conservative icon Phyllis Schlafly, The New York Times reported.

Students would study the inaugural address of Confederate President Jefferson Davis alongside President Abraham Lincoln’s address. Also of note, the new standards will assert the Christian faith of the nation’s founding fathers, despite historical consensus that says they had many approaches to religion. Thomas Jefferson, a secular figure who is said to have coined the phrase “separation of church and state,” will receive less attention. His will not be studied as a figure who influenced revolutions in the 18th and 19th centuries through his writings.

Some more minor changes will also be made. For instance the term “capitalism” will be replaced by “free enterprise,” due to the former’s bad connotations, The Dallas Morning News reports.

Opinion & Analysis: Historical balance, or political meddling?

Board member Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, told the Houston Chronicle that the new standards “reflect the desires of his constituents to emphasize ‘personal responsibility and accountability’ and ‘to honor our Founding Fathers, and our military.’”

But to this point, voices in support of the Texas Board of Education have been overwhelmed by a deluge of criticism from national and local papers, as well as the online media.

In an editorial for The Dallas Morning News, Jacquielynn Floyd railed against the school board, saying, “Its majority vote to de-emphasize (among other things) Thomas Jefferson, FDR, and the establishment clause to the Bill of Rights, and to weight public school curricula with more ‘American exceptionalism,’ gun rights, free-market cheerleading and the ‘dangers of overregulation’ does not exactly make Texas appear a bastion of scholarly excellence.”

She argues, however, that the current curriculum debate obscures more fundamental deficiencies and educational hurdles facing students.

“Ideological fist-pumping over such meddlesome trivia as substituting ‘free enterprise’ for ‘capitalism’ or ‘constitutional republic’ for ‘democracy’ won't make much difference to teenagers who graduate without being able to punctuate, add simple fractions or find Panama on a map.”

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