Cargill Wants to Use 'Outrage about CSCOPE' to Remove Limits on Texas SBOE's Power to Censor Textbooks

by Dan Quinn

It’s always important to look for the real motivations behind witch hunts. Example: Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) Chairwoman Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, wants to use the right’s manufactured “outrage” over the CSCOPE curriculum tool to loosen restrictions on the ability of SBOE members to censor textbooks for public schools.

Writing in her September “Cargill Connection” e-newsletter to supporters, Cargill says that “now is the time to ride the wave of public concern and outrage about CSCOPE,” a curriculum management system used in hundreds of public and private schools across Texas. Tea party and other right-wing activists have waged a year-long war against CSCOPE, absurdly claiming that the program is anti-American and anti-Christian and promotes Marxism and Islam.

Reporters have accurately noted that critics have provided“scant evidence to back up those assertions.” Even so, Cargill has also criticized CSCOPE, including its failure to include what she considers “another side” in its coverage of evolution — in other words, creationist arguments against evolution that scientists debunked long ago.

Now, Cargill insists in her e-newsletter, anti-CSCOPE activists should focus on giving the SBOE more power to edit content in textbooks used in the state’s public schools:

In the board’s current textbook review process, panelists are instructed to check for factual errors and for TEKS coverage, period. Checking for TEKS coverage is NOT checking for the quality with which the TEKS are covered. For example, George Washington is required to be covered in American history, since he is listed several times in the TEKS. How he is covered in the content, however, is not part of the review.

It is time for the citizens of Texas to demand change and to regain the right to vet the quality of content in our children’s textbooks! The same public passion that resulted in content changes in CSCOPE lessons must be harnessed and directed toward state policy-makers who can reinstate the vetting of content quality to the board’s adoption process.

What does Cargill mean by allowing the SBOE to “vet the quality of content in our children’s textbooks”? She writes that the board should be able to determine whether textbooks “present positive aspects of U.S. heritage,” “contain balanced, factual treatment of political and social movements,” and “promote respect for citizenship, patriotism, recognized authority, individual rights, the free enterprise (system), and respect for the work ethic.”

It’s doubtful that anyone would object to students learning such values in their public schools. Indeed, local school districts and teachers promote those values in their classrooms across the state. But giving politicians on the State Board of Education the power to make such subjective decisions regarding textbook content would return Texas to a time of open censorship of textbooks.

Until 1995, SBOE members often demanded that publishers make numerous changes — sometimes hundreds — to textbooks before they would approve them. Those demands often were based on little more than the personal and ideological beliefs of board members themselves.

During the 1995 health textbook adoption, for example, board members objected to textbook content about birth control and even simple line drawings that illustrated a woman doing a breast self-exam for cancer. Some social conservatives demanded that a photo of a woman carrying a briefcase be replaced with one of a woman baking a cake — illustrating a more traditional gender role for women.

Texas legislators, fed up with the SBOE’s seemingly endless political battles over textbook content, finally stripped the board of its authority to edit textbook content. New legislation that year limits the board only to determining whether textbooks cover the state’s required curriculum standards, are free of factual errors and meet required manufacturing specifications.

Board members have tried ever since, with varying degrees of success, to get around those limits. Sometimes they have claimed that textbook content they don’t like contains “factual errors.”  In 2001, for example, the SBOE rejected for adoption an environmental science textbook because some far-right board members claimed there were “factual errors” in its discussions about climate change and other environmental issues. They tried to do the same with biology textbooks in 2003, claiming that not including discredited arguments attacking evolution was an “error of omission.” (They failed that time.) In 2007 the board rejected a third-grade mathematics textbook, with the board’s far-right members refusing to give any reason at all. Those members later said they objected to the way the textbook taught multiplication. This year anti-evolution activists and their SBOE allies are pressuring publishers to revise proposed science textbooks by adding discredited arguments against evolution. You can read about other textbook battles at the SBOE here.

The last thing state lawmakers should do now is loosen limits on the SBOE’s ability to censor textbooks — especially with the SBOE set to take up the adoption of new social studies textbooks next year. In fact, the Legislature should strengthen those limits and ensure that decisions about what Texas students learn in their classrooms is determined by teachers and experts, not politicians on the State Board of Education pushing their own agendas.

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