The controversy over a bill on technology in public school classrooms once again shows that the Texas State Board of Education’s far-right members will fight hard against any policy they perceive as theatening their control over what public school students learn.
On Friday Gov. Rick Perry signed House Bill 4294, a bill by state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, that would, in part, allow schools districts to use state textbook money to buy laptops and other technology that students could use for electronic instructional materials, such as online textbooks. The bill also establishes procedures for the Texas education commissioner to approve electronic instructional materials that school districts may purchase.
The Texas Freedom Network took no position on the bill. Rep. Branch didn’t ask our opinion, and we didn’t offer him one. But an array of education and business organizations supported the legislation, including the Texas Association of School Administrators, the Texas Association of School Boards, the Texas Business and Education Coalition and the Texas Association of Business. Even conservative political groups backed it, including the Texas Conservative Coalition and Texans for Fiscal Responsibility.
So why was the bill controversial? Because it got caught up in the battle over who decides what public school students will learn in their classrooms.
The religious right hated the bill and demanded that the governor veto it. State board member Terri Leo, R-Spring, even launched an online petition to kill it. Among her arguments was that access to laptops doesn’t promote learning, and she pointed to a four-year study by the Texas Center for Educational Research as evidence. But the study’s findings aren’t as negative as Ms. Leo suggests. The study actually found that “technology immersion” had a variety of benefits, including help with teacher development and allowing more rigorous tasks for students. It also helped disadvantaged students close the gap with advantaged students on technology proficiency. While the study didn’t find improved academic achievement in some areas, it did find it in others. And it found that “students’ use of laptops for Home Learning was the strongest predictor of both TAKS reading and mathematics achievement.”
Again, the study didn’t show overwhelming evidence that technology immersion is the “magic bullet” for improving academic achievement in Texas, but some of the data is encouraging. Clearly, a number of education, business and conservative groups thought the evidence supporting improved achievement was sufficient to proceed.
But really, arguments by Ms. Leo and her fellow culture warriors against the effectiveness of technology for education have been a red herring. Their real objection is that the bill gives the education commissioner, not the State Board of Education, the authority to approve electronic instructional materials for purchase by school districts.
“HB4294 establishes a second content path WITHOUT the SBOE or public ‘check and balance’ we have now,” says one of Ms. Leo’s talking points on her petition Web page. “HB4294 would allow publishers to add or delete content at will without the elected SBOE approval.”
Then there’s this howler from Ms. Leo:
“The elected SBOE members spend the better part of their lives voluntarily trying to address these and other education issues. Respectfully, most of our legislators don’t have nearly as much knowledge and expertise on education as the elected SBOE.”
Legislators must be really chuckling over that one (if they’re not insulted). The only real education “expertise” they’ve seen from the dentists, salesmen and political activists on the state board is in dragging our public schools into the culture wars. When it comes to things like attacking instruction on evolution, promoting their personal religious views over everybody else’s, and callously insulting classroom teachers, this state board has truly set new standards of achievement.
Here’s the truth: social conservatives hate HB 4294 because they see it as an obstacle to using the State Board of Education to control what millions of Texas students learn in their public school classrooms. It took them a long time to gain control of the state board, and they will feel cheated if they now can’t exploit their gains.
Gov. Perry was in a bind, of course. Conservatives and educators on one side were asking him to sign the bill. On the other side folks from his base in the religious right were demanding that he veto it. So he tried to please both sides by signing it while issuing an executive order to placate social conservatives.
First, the order calls for the education commissioner and Texas Education Agency to continue working with the state board to ensure that instructional materials meet state curriculum standards and are free of factual errors. That doesn’t contradict anything in the bill.
Gov. Perry also ordered that the content review panel that will advise the commissioner on the adoption of electronic instructional materials include state board members (“or their designees”). He also insists that the state board have an opportunity to review electronic materials and make recommendations to the commissioner before the materials are approved (something already in the bill). Finally, the commissioner would not be able to approve any electronic textbook that the state board had previously rejected.
Frankly, we don’t see much in the governor’s executive order that really changes the bill, at least not in truly substantive ways. Perhaps Gov. Perry thinks social conservatives will simply accept defeat but back his re-election bid in 2010 anyway because they see no real alternative.
Again, TFN really had no dog in this hunt — at least not when it comes to what are the best ways to provide students access to instructional content. (We prefer to listen to experts.) But once again we saw culture warriors on the right try to kill legislation they fear might loosen their grip on the education of Texas schoolchildren. We saw similar efforts — with many of the same pressure tactics — throughout this year’s legislative session as lawmakers considered numerous bills that would have reined in the authority of the board.
All of that leaves us wondering: how much longer will lawmakers tolerate a state board that puts politics ahead of the education of Texas schoolchildren?