SBOE Chair Dances Around Teachers and the Law at Hearing

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.

4 thoughts on “SBOE Chair Dances Around Teachers and the Law at Hearing

  1. I am appauled at the SBOE. It needs to be disbanded. In the present we do not need the SBOE. I hope the Leg can find a way to get rid of it. Thanks for all your work at TFN to try to keep a good education for the children of Texas.

  2. The following four letters were initially sent to the superintendent and curriculum director for the Ector County Independent School District. Contrary to what some people are crowing about, the ECISD LOST the Bible course it was trying to teach – as a result of mediation that MAY have settled a lawsuit some of us filed here in Odessa. We filed because no one in power ever even pretended to talk through the issues I raise below. If the SBOE invites school districts to choose the curriculum that tore our city apart, cost the religious right control of the school board (they went from a 5-2 majority to a 6-1 minority,) and will ineluctably engender a spate of suits, all across the state, then it should by all means play to the agenda of the religious right. It’s worth noting, though, that the fundamentalists can be beaten, even in the most conservative city in Texas. The fighting is tough and sometimes vicious…and infinitely worth doing. david newman

    from letter one:
    … If the ECISD legitimizes this group’s course, do you honestly think kids who are outside of the majority so enthusiastically pushing this course here, will take LESS HEAT for not being of the faith? The course purports to be non-advocacy; the snippets of the course outline I have seen indicate that the Bible (King James) is to be studied not as literature but as an influence on literature. I wonder whether the historicity of the Bible will ever even be broached as a subject of inquiry. “Historicity” IS CRITICALLY IMPORTANT. If an instructor of this course, either unsponsored or as a result of prompting from a student, has to say where the Bible came from, what is going to be the answer? What do the fundamentalists who back the course want said here? Here’s a typical answer, from a theology course at a secular school (or at Notre Dame, Georgetown, or BYU; just not at Regent U.), based on the OXFORD REVISED STANDARD BIBLE (a translation by the leading Bible scholars in the world): what Jews call the Torah, or the Pentateuch, has been traditionally ascribed to Moses; years of research have confirmed that the first five books of the Bible were in fact written by priests, long after Moses’ time, when the nascent state of Israel had enough political stability (and when priests were literate). The creation myths in Genesis (there are two distinctly different accounts) were influenced by, or directly adopted from, creation stories told by other, older cultures in the region Babylonian stories are markedly similar). The Book of Job is clearly Wisdom Literature “borrowed” from ancient Mesopotamian sources. Almost every culture in the world has stories of God’s punishment of Man’s insolence; the flood and the Tower of Babel are found in myths that antedate by far the time usually given for Genesis’ composition (by priests, perhaps 2500 hears ago). Neither monotheism nor a god’s resurrection for the dead, for purposes of salvation, originated solely within the Judeo-Christian tradition.
    So what’s the point? Non-advocacy scholarship would demand that competing explanations for the origin of the Bible must be given. Do you honestly think anything other than “divine revelation” could ever be offered to Odessa high school students? Does anything you know about this course lead you to believe that basic scholarly concern for verisimilitude will be given even a nano-second’s worth of airtime?
    The word teleology is important, too. It does not merely imply that the Bible leads up to the New Testament; it means that the New Testament explicitly defines itself as the fulfillment of what otherwise is an incomplete work. Again, if a student should say, “well, what about those who don’t accept the New Testament?” what should a teacher say? Re-read the Gospel of John; its message for Jews who will not convert is blunt, brutal, and unequivocal. So, if a teacher believes the Book of John, what ought s/he say? “Those of you who are Christians meet me after school and I’ll validate the need for you to preach the true word”? If a teacher denies John’s writings as the literal truth, those parents who applauded this course are going to go ballistic.
    How is evolution to be handled? Every person associated with the NCBCPS is fiercely anti-evolution. What’ll be said in class? “Now, some scientists say we developed from lower life forms, but as you can see, God tells us…”
    The Odessa American quoted Tracy Kiesling (a Bible-course teacher from Brady who now works full-time for the Council) and Elizabeth Ridenour, who for some reason associate the Bible with 96% of “U.S. documents based [in some way] on Scripture.” You know what alarms me about such claims? Not the Nat?l Council on Bible Curriculum’s ideology, but the WILFUL misrepresentation of that of our Founders. What alarms me is the fact that such claims are easy to dismiss and too rarely done so. In “The Declaration of Independence,” Thomas Jefferson uses “Nature’s God” and “Creator”; he never gets more specific because he was a Deist: to him, the New Testament was not the account of a God who became human.
    I have assembled pages and pages of quotes from just about every “founding father” you could think of (certainly Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin); individually and collectively these comments reveal a deep, abiding concern about introducing ANYTHING even remotely sectarian into any government-sponsored activity, including education. The Jefferson quote Ms Ridenour loves to use is taken dramatically out of context; he saw the importance of individuals taking the initiative to know their Bibles as thoroughly as possible. He also fought like hell to keep any such formalized public instruction out of the schools in Virginia. The people who want to teach this course in Odessa aren’t middle-of-the-road Christians or some interfaith coalition; they are fundamentalists who are trying desperately to get a foot in a door that was shut on them by people whom they claim to reverence: Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, George Washington, Ben Franklin, and James Madison. That door was shut precisely to obviate the centuries of Christian-on Christian violence, the millennium of anti-Semitism, the complete evisceration of non-Judeo/Christian points of view (and remember, most of the “founding fathers” were Deists, and denied the divinity of Christ) to end sectarian carnage before it could send this country back precisely to the Reformations and Counterreformations whose legacies were still leaving the countryside of Europe running with blood 60 years ago. I have a library of documents written by our founders; perhaps on e quote from James Madison, author of the First Amendment, will suffice: “We the subscribers, citizens of the said Commonwealth [Virginia, whose Declaration of Rights was the prototype of the nation’s Bill of Rights], having taken into serious consideration, a Bill printed by order of the last Session of General Assembly, entitled “A Bill establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion,” and conceiving that the same if finally armed with the sanctions of a law, will be a dangerous abuse of power, are bound as faithful members of a free State to remonstrate against it.”
    Many of the quotes also reveal enduring skepticism about the divinity of Christ. These were all Enlightenment thinkers, after all. I wonder what would happen if the ECISD were offered a chance to teach a course on the Enlightenment, or Humanism, or the origins of the scientific method. Would such a course, regardless of actual content, be described as “advocacy of secular humanism”? Why are Bible-course proponents granted the rhetorical high-ground of non-advocacy when they are so unwilling to grant that same ground to anyone with whom they disagree?
    That’s a fact; do with it what you will. The U.S. Constitution does not make reference to religion until the First Amendment, and the people who wrote it were not basing it in any way on Judeo-Christian scripture.
    I need to be very blunt; I have no power but words, and too often that can mean no power at all. I implore you to hear THIS: Jews, Muslims, and others not interested in converting are going to have one hell of a time with this course, whether they take it or not. My child is Jewish; she attends Bowie Jr. High, and she already gets more ugliness directed at her (“you really don’t believe in Jesus? Well, you know you’re going to burn in Hell for all eternity, don’t you?”), more cruelty than any kid in the ECISD should have to bear. Do you think Christian students, all aglow with their participation in this elective, are going to become more tolerant? People who think a Bible course (one which uses the King James, Protestant, Bible, with its elegant, lurid descriptions of the fates of non-believers) will solve any of the district’s problems are perhaps naïve, perhaps willfully naïve, about what those problems are.

    from letter two:
    I have the deepest respect for people who display true piety in their daily lives; it is they who show (not tell) their children how to live kind and thoughtful lives. But I’ve been disturbed by what seems a community’s rush to embrace Bible-based education at public schools. Why is such a course needed? I speak directly to those who have most openly demonstrated support for this elective: please consider what I say not as a spiteful set of rhetorical questions, but as a thing I really, really, need to know. How many of you, honestly, do not provide Bible-based education to your children already? If you know how important the course is, then your surety must be founded on direct study of the Bible. If you need more Bible-study for your own children, do you truly not know where to find it for them outside of the ECISD? I ask because I want to know for whom YOU intend this course. Do you want it for your own children, because there is some absence in the community of precisely the content offered in the course? Or, do you want it because you think your neighbor’s sick kid needs it? or that brat down the street, or the Muslims on the next block, whose salvation you think might be in jeopardy? Please tell me why your community needs to know one group’s interpretation of the origin, purpose, and influence of Christianity. If it’s because America is primarily a Christian country, then the course is superfluous. If it’s because America is not as Christian as you’d like to see it become, then the course does serve an evangelical purpose. Please don’t tell me the course will produce better literature and history students; the connection between American history and Christianity is far more complex than I have heard from the course’s advocates. And as for literature: I’ve just finished teaching John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” to my students. The course under discussion would have hindered my efforts, perhaps dramatically.
    To me, the issue is clear: if you think the course is actually needed, then it is needed by people whom you should help in any way you can…when they ask for your help. If you try to help me, whether I want it or not, then you’re telling me how to live your version of a good life, and you’re showing me something I don’t want to see and will never want to be.

    from letter three:
    ….there is a much more important issue here, and it is one upon which Mr. Crampton is being a bit disingenuous. He argues that so much of Western cultural history is based on the Bible that to omit its instruction handicaps students’ abilities to “appreciate art, literature, history, and even the American legal system.” The same could be said for the influence of Enlightenment thinking; I note that the Deism, the tendency among people whom we call Founding Fathers to regard Jesus as a great man, and no God at all, is conspicuously left out of Texas public school curricula at all levels, presumably because the content is too ideologically inflammatory. Schools don’t talk about Martin Luther’s virulent anti-Semitism at all. Should they? Should a course on the Founders mention the fact they would not have favored such a Bible course?
    What Mr. Crampton and his group are really doing is using the language (sometimes almost word-for-word) of Allan Bloom (in THE CLOSING OF THE AMERICAN MIND) and E.D. Hirsch (CULTURAL LITERACY AND WHAT EVERY AMERICAN NEEDS TO KNOW)to argue for what people in a Western culture owe to their origins (whether these are known or not). As T.S. Eliot put it in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” “‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ [Eliot then answers:] Precisely, and they are that which we know.” Learning the antecedents of Western culture is hardly a new idea, and to a certain extent that happens in school already. Not enough, certainly: the knowledge is dribbled out piece-meal, from disparate sources in too often competing specializations. So why not teach a course on the origins of Western culture? It would include the Bible, of course; such a class would deal with the origins and uses of sacred objects ranging from the Bible to the KORAN to Greek and Roman mythology. The class would also deal with art, literature, and the great intellectual movements that make us who we are…that explain the divisions that still exist in our culture. There’d be discussion of Plato’s idealism and its profound influence on St. Paul; there’d also be mention of evolution, of humanism, rationalism, of Galileo, Freud, Nietzsche and Einstein. Or would THAT be too controversial? If so, why? And why not a Bible course?
    Our art, our literature, have etched not just into stone or onto paper the elegant, the stunning, the grief-filled and awe-inspiring story of centuries of human minds wrestling with words and images and concepts that have NEVER come easily. The lines of that etching have become ineluctably graven onto our faces, now, in every piece of art or history or literature we do anthologize. Why not tell THAT story in a class? What’s to fear? I seem to have met Mr. Crampton’s demand to inculcate students with a sense of history. If he says (if anyone says) I’ve gone too far, he should ask himself, very carefully, why the line gets drawn with the Bible on one side and (say) Darwin or Hobbes or Voltaire on the other. Come now…is the reason not ideological, and are we not talking about an advocacy course, whether the Bible is taught alone or with all of the other elements that will truly allow students to “appreciate art, literature, history, and even the American legal system”?

    from letter four:
    Dear Superintendent Sollis and Mr. Starnes,

    I’ve written you a number of times, and must acknowledge that my tone may have been off-putting. But the reason I write at all is that education matters to me; you may have noticed in yesterday’s OA that the valedictorian of Permian said I was the best teacher she’d ever had (she took British Literature from me as a concurrent student at OC). As I said, I’m also the parent of an ECISD student (she’s at Bowie ; her teachers seem to like her, if that matters). With regard to the initial impetus to adopt a Bible course, I had serious concerns about the direction the District seemed to be moving (about what in fact was moving the District to begin with), but I did contact you before I involved the various news and civil liberties organizations that are now involved. I don’t trust the national organizations very much; they have agendas of their own, and (I suspect) do not really care what kids in Odessa, TX learn. I do care. So I’m offering you a compromise proposal; I’m also begging for the courtesy of a response, even if it is hostile. Indifference is more worrisome to me than any other kind of reaction. At any rate, here’s the proposal:

    [this was published in the Fall 2005 AMERICAN SCHOLAR journal]
    I endorse, am qualified to develop, and will help in any way I can to design, a course on humanities (it could be called anything appropriately generic: “A History of Western Culture” or “A History of Ideas.”) I’ve a strong background in the humanities, and have taught AP high school philosophy at the Liberal Arts Academy in the Austin, TX ISD: I know how to make a course like this interesting, precisely because it introduces, rather than denies, the crucible of the sometimes agonizing differences in which our greatest artistic, literary, philosophical, and scientific achievements were forged. America ‘s foundational documents have such an origin.
    The founders insisted that we understand the complexity of our stories of origins (Biblical and political), else we do the gravest harm to the question any such story is really told to answer: where are we going? My objection to a course solely about the Bible is this: isn’t it dangerous to teach a course that offers its textbook as the only context for answering the questions raised in (or by) the textbook? In a Bible course (especially the one you’re considering: I’ve now had a chance to do a comprehensive analysis of the NCBCPS curriculum, and will be happy to share with you why I think it’s an advocacy course favored by a small but very vocal, and very well-financed group), the primary text can influence any number of artists, writers, philosophers, etc. But in a Humanities course, we can say that Plato’s Allegory of the Cave profoundly influenced the letters of Paul, or the writings of Augustine. We can examine the redeemer motif in Western myth and religion; we can look at math and science as having their slow, tenuous beginnings with the Greeks, with Muslims (they invented algebra), and the Mayans (they invented the number zero).
    We do not have to say, as the NCBCPS curriculum clearly does, that the Bible speaks truth about astronomy, cosmology, biology, or geography, regardless of how the ancients perceived things. The danger of this Bible course is that influence moves only from one text to many cultural artifacts; this is to elevate the Bible, to teach it precisely as a sacred object. You may believe it is such an object, but if you teach the course this way, you’re on precarious constitutional footing. That would never happen in any other history or philosophy course. The Bible alone, taught as advocacy, appeals to advocates and people who are intellectually naïve. The Enlightenment alone, taught as advocacy, also appeals to advocates and people who are intellectually naïve. The Bible and the Enlightenment, taught together, will daunt advocacy of any sort and refuse to accept the idea that people should remain intellectually naïve. If this last course description does not embrace the mission of a public school, then how precisely does “public” fit with “school”?
    The course I am proposing will engender critical thought, in the context of reading and writing assignments that will demand students to make connections, argue, wrestle with familiar and unfamiliar ideas, and apply the highest order of thinking skills. This demand will in turn make better readers and writers; I have experience in test preparation as well as English teaching; I am certain that an interdisciplinary course can do what I’ve claimed. If you want, I will show you a detailed syllabus; I am willing to write the curriculum for such a course — again, not because I am a Godless heathen, but because I truly want for all students in Odessa to get the best, most challenging and rewarding education possible. My fear is that certain Bible courses will calcify prejudices (I’ve already received quite a lot of hate mail, including a death threat) rather than engender critical thought.
    I would really like to talk to you about this proposal; again, I sincerely apologize for a choice of tone that was peremptory and alarmist. My only excuse (and maybe this is something others haven’t been exposed to: my kid already has, at Bowie) is that there may have been something to be alarmed about.


  3. Wow, Mr Newman! That is wonderfully written stuff! Thanks for countering the smoke and obfuscation of the Bartonists, etc., so well!

  4. Bravo, David Newman! Your erudition and logic shine a beacon on the (unsuccessfully disguised) provincial evangelicalism of the bible course proponents.

    I want to take the course you propose; sounds wonderfully exciting and stimulating.

    David Newman for Governor!