Politics and Curriculum Standards in Texas

by TFN

Gov. Rick Perry has been doing all he can to solidify his support among far-right pressure groups. This weekend (July 2-3), for example, Gov. Perry will be speaking at the Americans for Prosperity Foundation’s Texas Defending the American Dream Summit in Austin. The governor will join speakers such as Tim Phillips, president of the AFP Foundation; a number of nationally known writers, actors and entertainers on the right; and Joe the Plumber, the guy who became something of a political celebrity during last year’s presidential campaign.

On the agenda is the usual heavy dose of right-wing paranoia, including workshops such as “Recognizing Media Bias: Analyzing the news,” “How to Fight Biased Media: What to do when you spot bias or errors in the media.” Another panel is called “From Tea Parties to Taking Back America,” as if someone (guess who) has somehow stolen America from its rightful owners.

Here was a panel that especially caught our eye: “Texas Textbook Wars & Curriculum Controversies.” Seeing that panel topic at an AFP confab is hardly a surprise to us. During the long debate at the Texas State Board of Education over proposed social studies curriculum standards, one of the voices in support of the changes coming from the board’s far-right faction was Peggy Venable, executive director of the Texas office of Americans for Prosperity (AFP).

Ms. Venable went before the state board last November to call for members to make substantial changes to nearly a year’s worth of work by social studies curriculum teams made up of teachers and scholars. She joined a long list of pooh-bahs from the Texas right to call for politicizing the standards at that and subsequent board hearings on the standards. As we now know, the board obliged — making scores of ill-considered, politically charged revisions to the standards in January, March and May meetings.

That wasn’t the first time we’ve seen Ms. Venable wade into curriculum and textbook matters at the state board. In 2001 she attacked what she absurdly called “anti-American sentiment” in proposed environmental science textbooks. The board ended up rejecting one textbook, with members and outside pressure groups criticizing the book’s coverage of global warming and the Endangered Species Act, among other things. Ms. Venable also was a prominent critic of social studies textbooks in 2002, claiming that they were not sufficiently patriotic. Ms. Venable also insists that students learn creationist-based, junk-science arguments against evolution in science classrooms.

Gov. Perry, of course, has also supported the state board’s far-right faction, including appointing two of its members as board chair. Earlier this month, the governor also announced that Texas would not apply for the second round of federal Race to the Top funding. In a press release on June 1, Gov. Perry charged that the Race to the Top Funds are the Obama administration’s “attempt to bait states into adopting national standards” for curriculum content. Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott (appointed to his post by Gov. Perry), argues that “it would cost Texas a great deal of money to abandon our state standards, which are the product of years of hard work by Texas educators and stakeholder.”

TFN has taken no position on the move by many states to adopt common core academic standards. But the last three years have shown that the confidence Commissioner Scott and Gov. Perry have in the ability of the heavily politicized and dysfunctional Texas state board to adopt sound curriculum standards is deeply misguided.

From the perspective of Texas educators – who have the charge to translate the standards into effective classroom instruction – the actions of the state board are likely to be harmful. In fact, six of the nine curriculum experts appointed by the board to write draft curriculum standards for the high school U.S. history course last year have denounced the board’s changes to their work this year. State board members also rejected a call from more than 1,200 historians for an expert review of the scores of changes board members made to the social studies standards.

We rather doubt that the AFP’s panel discussion on textbooks and curriculum this weekend will note those two salient facts. We expect Gov. Perry’s speech at the AFP meeting will similarly ignore them. Such is the politicized state of education in Texas today.

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