Disingenuous Cynthia Dunbar Unites Texas Ed Board Against Her Textbook

by Dan Quinn

The often deeply divided Texas State Board of Education just voted unanimously — 14-0 — to reject the controversial and error-plagued Mexican American Heritage textbook. (Board member David Bradley, R-Beaumont, was absent.) The board must vote again on Friday, but it would be very surprising if the board reverses today’s decision.

It’s ironic that Cynthia Dunbar, whose company published the textbook, has succeeded in uniting a board she helped make a deeply divisive and dysfunctional mess when she served on it during a controversial four-year term that ended in 2010. But it’s clear that board members listened closely to scholars who documented hundreds of errors in a textbook they said portrayed Mexican-Americans as a threat to American society and values.

It was fascinating to watch Dunbar defend her deeply flawed textbook at a public hearing on Tuesday. She made a number of arguments that raised eyebrows among those of us who have been monitoring the state board for many years.

Dunbar argued that her textbook had been the subject of unfair criticism, that the text had met all the requirements set out for adoption, and that its rejection would dissuade publishers from submitting textbooks in the future. Her primary argument, however, seemed to be that rejecting her textbook would amount to unconstitutional “viewpoint discrimination” against her and her company. And she made it pretty clear that she was considering a lawsuit to challenge a vote to reject the textbook.

Let’s take her arguments one at a time.

First, it is hardly unfair that respected historians and other scholars in the field of Mexican-American studies reviewed her textbook and found it deeply flawed. They weren’t the ones who hired unqualified authors to write the textbook. Dunbar did that. Moreover, she has already acknowledged that she purposely did not hire scholars in Mexican-American studies as authors because she didn’t want to “bias” the textbook.

Second, the textbook does not meet all of the requirements set out for board approval. State law requires that textbooks approved for use in Texas public schools be free of errors. When scholars from across Texas and even outside the state reviewed the textbook this summer, they documented more than 200 errors. When they reviewed revisions proposed by the publisher this fall, they found that the error count had multiplied to more than 400. They presented those findings to state board members on Tuesday.

Third, the argument that the state board is making it hard for publishers to submit good textbooks for consideration in Texas is deeply disingenuous. During her time on the board, Dunbar herself engaged in precisely that kind of behavior. In 2007 she led a successful effort to reject a proposed elementary school mathematics textbook the board was considering. The state’s official review had found the textbook met the required curriculum standards, and there were no charges that it was plagued with factual errors. But Dunbar and other far-right board members simply argued that they could reject the textbook without providing any reason at all.

Their colleagues were appalled, with one telling reporters: “It was like they enjoyed not giving a reason. We were almost begging them for a reason.”

The publisher, which had undoubtedly spent considerable resources to publish the textbook, was screwed. But Dunbar wasn’t particularly concerned that the board was making it hard for publishers to do business in Texas.

Revealingly, when asked about that episode during Tuesday’s hearing on her Mexican American Heritage textbook, Dunbar suggested that she had moved to reject the mathematics textbook because it violated statutory requirements in how it taught multiplication. In fact, her far-right allies on the board made similar arguments after the vote in 2007. But there is no such statutory requirement. Dunbar seems to have made that argument up out of thin air.

Finally, Dunbar’s claim of “viewpoint discrimination” was essentially an open threat that her company will file a lawsuit if the board rejects her textbook this week. She even suggested that opposition to the textbook was driven by the Texas Freedom Network, an organization she said hates her.

For the record, we don’t hate Dunbar. But we strongly opposed her efforts to politicize the state’s curriculum standards and textbooks when she served on the state board. In fact, Dunbar engaged in her own viewpoint discrimination many times, including when she led successful opposition to a proposed requirement that social studies students learn how our nation’s founders protected religious freedom by barring government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion. Dunbar got her Republican board colleagues to reject that requirement essentially by arguing that separation of church and state isn’t a key constitutional principle.

On another occasion, in 2010, she supported a board resolution absurdly suggesting that history textbooks used in Texas schools were biased against Christianity and promoted Islam. There was no truth to such claims. In fact, the idea that a Republican-dominated state board would have approved such textbooks in 2002 is simply ridiculous. But Dunbar and her far-right colleagues on the board decided that the political viewpoint of anti-Muslim hysterics should be board policy.

In any case, the state board voted today to reject her textbook because the deeply flawed text is plagued with errors. More than two dozen scholars who have dedicated their careers to the study of Mexican-American history have documented those errors. Dunbar not only has acknowledged not hiring experts in Mexican-American studies to write a textbook titled Mexican American Heritage, she also also couldn’t even tell the board yesterday what qualifications those authors actually have. She said she hadn’t brought their bios with her. Seriously. She needed to refer to the bios of the authors she hired to write her own textbook?

The scholars who have reviewed her textbook are appalled and offended that Dunbar would reject their hard work and their expertise out of hand. They have a right to be. Dunbar has failed to correct the errors they documented and can’t even put up her authors as experts to defend her textbook.

But perhaps the biggest error in the textbook is the one that scholars say is thematically woven throughout the content: the suggestion that Mexicans and Mexican-Americans pose some danger to American society and values. That deeply offensive idea is a serious error Dunbar wouldn’t be able to correct without hiring true scholars in the field to rewrite the entire textbook.

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