Control Issues

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?

5 thoughts on “Control Issues

  1. TFN:
    “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?”

    Until the next legislative session after Dunbar is appointed as Chair.

  2. Wait a minute — isn’t this the state where Dell, Apple and Compaq (HP) have manufacturing plants? Isn’t this the home state of Dell Computers?

    Isn’t Texas the state where Texas Instruments resides, and where Jack Kilby invented the integrated circuit that won him the Nobel Prize?

    SBOE has done everything it can to brush off every other Nobelist in the state. I guess they thought it was time to pick on Kilby. He’s dead now, and can’t write op-ed pieces to call them on their stupidity.


  3. Charles can call them on their stupidity. But first a quote from Tony Campolo:

    [Radical right wing Christian Neo-Fundamentalist] “Conservatives are people who worship at the graves of dead radicals. Stop to think about that. The people who started this country, George Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, these were not conservatives; these were the radicals of the time. In fact, conservatives always look back on people who they despised and make them into heroes. If you were to listen to the religious right today, they would make you believe that Martin Luther King was one of their flock. In reality, they hated him and did everything they could to destroy him.”

    People like David Barton and certain members of the SBOE would like to teach our children in the public schools that the founding fathers of our country were virtually perfect beings, paragons of purity in life, and religious to the core. Dare we say it. They would have us believe that the founding fathers were the “righteous” Christian NeoFundamentalists of their own day—even if they were a patchwork of deists; apostate Anglicans, Presbyterians, Quakers, Congregationalists; and whatever else. They would write textbooks to urge our children to follow them and take them as models for their own lives.

    Now. The truth. The founding fathers were big-time drinkers of alcoholic beverages. We are not talking about one gestural sip from a wine glass—but only at Christmas. We know from American history that these people drank alcoholic beverages morning, noon, and night—all day—every day. It was safer than water, and they loved it dearly. For example, John Hancock was a wealthy citizen of Boston who made his living in the shipping business. What most people do not know is that part of his shipping business was smuggling contraband, including a variety of fine wines and liquors to satiate the thirsts of his fellow patriots and the citizens of Boston. If these guzzling founding fathers were anything like the rest of the American people today, you can bet that at least 15 percent of them were confirmable alcoholics.

    If these founding fathers were alive today, Christian NeoFundamentalists would be REQUIRED by basic religious doctrine to SEPARATE THEMSELVES socially from wretched sinners such as these founding fathers and have nothing to do with them. Treat them as outcasts and pariahs just like all the other assorted sinners that they despise today. Yet, what do we find them doing? We find them worshipping at the graves of these radical founding fathers that they would despise and separate from in a flash if they were alive today. If they were you or me, they would not let their children even come near us. Yet, they are desperate to have their children and yours study these men in their social studies textbooks and model their lives after them. Moreover, they would have our children very nearly worship them as virtue-soaked demigods—which is of course a false image of who these founding fathers really were.

    The fact of the matter is that our founding fathers were very talented human beings who also happened to have failings and flaws just like everyone else. They were human beings. They did some good things. They did some bad things. They were imperfect. We should teach our children the truth about human nature in others and in ourselves—as well as in our founding fathers.

    How’s that for a butt kick?

  4. And while we are on the subject of perfection in politicians and whether we should teach it in social studies class, what on earth is happening to all of the current-day political darlings of the Religious Right. Right wing governors and senators are dropping like flies these days. Playing footsies in bathroom stalls. Secret love affairs in Florida. High-flying gubernatorial trists in Argentina.

    Don, Cynthia, Terri. Wake up!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. The irony is that social conservatives claim to be fighting for local control of education, but when a bill comes up that gives local school districts more instructional options, they’re against it.

    To be fair, educational technology is often over-hyped. School districts should be very careful about ignoring the hype and only adopting electronic products that truly meet their needs. But as long as the materials meet state standards, that’s the school districts’ decision, not Terri Leo’s.