SBOE Chair Dances Around Teachers and the Law at Hearing

by TFN

It was, in a twisted way, a remarkable performance. In long, rambling testimony before the House Public Education Committee today, the chairman of the State Board of Education displayed a stunning disregard for facts, teachers and the will of the Legislature.

Proclaiming that “Texans should be very proud of its education board,” board chairman Don McLeroy, R-Bryan, effectively thumbed his nose at a legion of angry teachers sitting in audience. Those teachers had come to tell committee members how very little they agree with that sentiment (although McLeroy left the hearing before they testified). Then McLeroy tap danced around pointed questions regarding the board’s refusal so far to obey a legislative requirement to develop new, specific curriculum standards for public school classes about the Bible’s influence in history and literature.

McLeroy started his testimony by acknowledging that the board’s recent revision of curriculum standards for language arts and reading had been “messy.” But he then spent considerable time defending the process: “I’m very proud of the procedure. . . . I stand by what happened.”

Well, what happened was McLeroy and a majority of allied board members threw under the bus teachers they had appointed to work groups tasked with revising the language arts standards. After teachers worked for nearly three years — for free — to develop the new standards, McLeroy rammed through a different version that the teachers strongly opposed. Two McLeroy allies on the board patched together that version over the course of a few hours the evening before the final vote. It was then slipped under hotel room doors the next morning, about an hour before the meeting.

When state Rep. Dora Olivo, D-Rosenberg, expressed deep concerns about those events, McLeroy blamed a “mix up” at the hotel. Board members should have gotten the patched-together curriculum document the evening before the vote, he said.

Oh, well, that makes throwing out three years of work by teachers OK then, yes?

A long line of teachers who testified later at the hearing expressed their frustration at having been cut out of the curriculum revision process at the end. State board members who had opposed the McLeroy majority were also upset. “At the end of the day, I think we failed to respect our teachers,” said board member Bob Craig, R-Lubbock. Pat Hardy, R-Fort Worth, and Mavis Knight, D-Dallas, backed up Craig’s sentiments and voiced their concerns about how teachers — and other board members — had been treated by the McLeroy majority.

Of course, House committee members can probably feel their pain. Last year they amended House Bill 1287 to require that the state board develop new, specific curriculum content standards for public school classes about the Bible’s influence in history and literature. Yet the McLeroy majority is trying to pass vague, very general standards that say nothing about the content for those classes. (Read a recap of the issue here.)

Under questioning from state Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, McLeroy had a hard time coming up with a reason why the state board would develop specific standards for some courses but not for others. When Rep. Hochberg asked whether any law gives the state board the authority to make that decision, McLeroy simply said he didn’t know. In fact, Rep. Hochberg said, “This Legislature told you what you were supposed to do” — develop specific content standards for Bible classes.

McLeroy said he was listening, but he offered no indication that he would obey. In fact, the religious conservatives who make up the McLeroy majority on the board are opposed to requiring statewide content standards for such courses. Why? Probably because research has shown that most Bible classes already offered in Texas without statewide content standards are not neutral and academic, as required by the courts. Such classes end up being courses simply about the religious beliefs of teachers and the curriculum materials they gather from churches and religious groups like the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools. In short, many of the courses are devotional, essentially turning public schools into Sunday schools.

Texas Freedom Network Deputy Director Ryan Valentine told the House committee that the state board’s refusal to obey the Legislature on Bible classes is part of a pattern. Last fall, the board brazenly ignored a 13-year-old law that limits their authority to edit and reject textbooks submitted by publishers for adoption. You can read Ryan’s testimony here. It seems that the McLeroy majority has decided that laws it doesn’t like don’t have to be obeyed.

On Friday, the state board is scheduled to debate and take a final vote on curriculum standards for Bible classes. The board’s Committee on Instruction will hear testimony about the proposed standards on Thursday. Texas Freedom Network will testify at that hearing.