SBOE Throws School Districts Under the Bus

As we feared, the Texas State Board of Education today voted 10-5 to adopt vague, very general guidelines for Bible classes that public schools may teach as electives throughout the state. Read here for background about the issue. The Texas Freedom Network has also released two statements to the press. 

Statement from TFN Deputy Director Ryan Valentine

Today we can almost hear the collective groan of officials in school districts across Texas. The State Board of Education just threw those districts and their teachers under the bus by refusing to give them the guidance they need to create courses that are respectful of the Bible, protect the religious freedom of students and keep our neighbhorhood schools out of court.

This is what happens when our elected officials put politics and personal agendas ahead of the interests of our schoolchildren and their families. This state board had the opportunity to make Texas a model for how public schools can teach students about the importance of the Bible in history and literature while also protecting religious freedom and taxpayers from unnecessary and costly lawsuits.

But they blew it.

The board’s majority stubbornly ignored the clear intent of the Legislature — expressed explicitly in statute and in communications between legislators and board members — that these classes be based on clear, specific content standards. Such standards would provide the guidance that local school districts need to create appropriate, rigorous and respectful courses about the Bible. Instead, the board approved vague, very general standards that fail our local schools and their students.

In refusing to hold even one public hearing before the full board, the board majority also showed naked contempt for the hard work legislators put into crafting the law designed to ensure that our public schools offer courses that are legal, respectful and protect the religious freedom of students. As it does when adopting curriculum standards for history, science and other courses, the full board heard hours of testimony on multiple occasions when revising statewide standards for language arts. Yet the full board heard not one word of testimony from experts, parents and other citizens about something as important as a study of the Bible’s influence in history and literature.

The board majority then rammed through a set of vague standards that fail to offer a shred of guidance about the specific content that should be in these courses. Based on extensive research, we know for a fact that classes already based on these general standards in Texas school districts fail to meet even minimal standards for academic rigor. Even worse, those public school districts — sometimes unknowingly — create courses that promote the religious beliefs of the teacher and outside religious groups over those of the students, their families and other taxpayers.

In fact, just this year the Ector County Independent School District in Odessa settled a lawsuit over this very issue. This spring that school district agreed to adopt a new curriculum that does not put its own high schools in the position of directly undermining the religious teachings of the families of their students.

As a result of today’s actions, however, the state board has recklessly put any school districts that create Bible classes based on these general, insufficient standards in severe legal jeopardy. The board’s majority has abandoned our local school districts and failed the students, families and taxpayers they serve. This action represents an incredible failure in leadership, and voters should hold these elected board members accountable.

Statement from Dr. Mark Chancey, associate professor and chair of the Department of Religious Studies, Southern Methodist University in Dallas

Dr. Chancey authored a 2006 report for the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund about how Texas public schools currently teach about the Bible.

It is unfortunate that the board neglected to develop content specific guidelines for public school Bible classes. These courses can be a wonderfully enriching educational experience, but they must be taught in a way that is academically, legally and ethically appropriate. Teachers need and want resources to help them do just that. Instead, the state board of education is sending them into a minefield without map.

We have looked through thousands of pages of course materials from Texas Bible classes. We know for a fact what is already happening in most of them.

We know for a fact that most courses promote Christian beliefs over those of other religions. Some classes promote creation science. Some classes denigrate Judaism. Some classes explicitly encourage students to convert to Christianity or to adopt Christian devotional practices. This is all well documented, and the board knows it. And all of these classes were taught under the very standards that the state board of education approved today. The board approved the status quo, and approving the status quo means approving the widespread teaching of Bible classes from a conservative Christian theological perspective in public schools.

Using public schools to promote some religious views over others is not religious freedom. And it’s not constitutional. I’m not a prophet, but I predict that school districts will suffer because of the board’s actions.

The Good Book deserves better than it got today. And so does the state of Texas.


6 thoughts on “SBOE Throws School Districts Under the Bus

  1. From law offices across the land we hear, “Fire up the computers, Nellie! Order the yacht! Whoooooeeeeeee! We’re gonna have us some lawsuits now!”

  2. Last year, I begged everybody I know to stand up against HB1287, the bill which created this situation. I warned that a high school course about the sacred text of one group of believers would, at the very least, annoy a large segment of our society.

    Why on earth would the majority of the 80th Texas Legislature and members of the SBOE think that bible instruction was appropriate for taxpayer-supported public high schools in Texas? There’s no lack of churches, mosques, synagogues, fellowships, etc., nor is there any disinterest among pastors, imams, rabbis, congregation leaders, etc. I believe that religious leaders would be happy to conduct bible study sessions in their houses of worship for an hour every day, five days a week. The perfect time would be 4 – 5 p.m. Most likely, it would be free. And taxpayers wouldn’t be saddled with the bill.

    It is unconstitutional for any taxpayer to be required to support any religious activity. Our public money should be used for secular academic courses and vocational and technical training to prepare our young people for adulthood.

    There is a time and place for everything. It is inappropriate for a congregation to recite the multiplication tables on Sunday morning. It is equally inappropriate for a religious book to be taught in public school.

  3. The citizens of Texas should hold the SBOE accountable for their politically/religiously motivated actions. Due to the SBOE’s complete lack of integrity and professionalism, school districts all over the state will surely be targets to lawsuits. Suits which could have been prevented by the SBOE by setting specific guidelines.

    It is my hope that Texans remember those who are responsible when the lawsuits begin.

  4. An analogy occurs to me; the SBOE and legislators sympathetic to the religious right may never consider this line of thought…but I think it’s still worth disseminating. Perhaps someone listening IS in a position where she or he could use it to force some Board members to take a hard look in the mirror as they let loose this wretched policy: let’s say that social studies departments across the state got a mandate to offer an optional course on civil liberties. Well, one rather obvious way to handle such a mandate would be to contract the whole course out to the ACLU. This group has been around; it has the best bona fides around when it comes to arguing civil liberties cases; let ‘em loose, right?
    Well, then, we’d need a vetting procedure entirely commensurate with the one being proposed for those who would teach the Bible. So, what standards exactly would the SBOE impose, in law, on classrooms who use any speakers, any briefs, any policy statements, anything at all associated w/ this organization, BEFORE teachers were allowed to use this rather obvious resource to teach about civil liberties. Certainly some Board members will object, vehemently, to allowing an agenda-driven advocacy group to proselytize our precious students; to those members of the SBOE, I’d meekly ask just why letting preachers loose w/ Protestant Bibles in their hands is so self-evidently removed from the possibility of ideological abuse, from the possibility of causing real human harm to children whose only “problem” is that they might not already BELIEVE what the Texas wants them to believe about those Bibles.
    What, ultimately, is the benefit of cheerleading for the Bible in a public school (and people who say they don’t want this course because it is cheerleading for the Bible are quite simply lying, which means sinning)? Answers: Students who come from families of faith will already have received as much religious education as their parents can get for them – there are churches on every corner of every town in Texas, all making the desperate need for this course desperately superfluous. So the course must be directed towards people who in one way or another don’t KNOW ENOUGH about the Bible. When the State decides that someone doesn’t know enough about one religion (and last I checked, the Bible doesn’t endorse or elucidate Islam, atheism, Taoism, or even indifference to religion), the State is at that moment violating the separation clause. The NCBCPS folks — the ones whose curriculum will now be so much easier to teach without even perfunctory scrutiny — know this all too well. That’s why their first lesson is that there’s no such thing as separation of church and state. True: in the first two weeks of the semester, students are shown David Barton’s “Foundations of American Government.” Students are neither shown nor offered anything that would substantively question the “gospel” truth of Barton’s agenda-driven, advocacy film; students are told nothing about, say, his longstanding ties to the far right wing of the Texas GOP. This is a fact: do with it what you will.
    So, if our kids are taught that America was and is a Christian nation (and should, as Barton has said, celebrate the fourth of July as the day Christ delivered our nation so that it could fulfill its missionary destiny in the world) and that the separation clause is a myth, we should trust the teacher. If our kids are taught that the above claim might be unconstitutional, and that there’s a group like the ACLU that has fought, and will always fight, to challenge those who might imperil the constitution — oh, well THEN we need to watch that teacher like a hawk.
    Quis custodiet ipsos

  5. Oh, one thing Ryan doesn’t mention in his comments about the Ector County ISD (see above) is that the mediation is absolutely contingent on the condition that the ECISD will immediately cease teaching the NCBCPS curriculum and will never teach it again. The bottom line here is that what drove US into court is now likely to recur in every school district — in the state — controlled by religious extremists. That’s one hell of a lot of school districts. So much that could be spent, that could be done, for Texas students is being wasted in abject contempt by people who would rather look good on “The 700 Club” than take concrete steps to solve any of the real problems — skyrocketing dropout rates, a general decline in literacy, teen pregnancy increases not being cured by abstinence-only programs, teacher burnout and turnover…in short, a demonstrably troubled state school policy regimen. To use a metaphor Dr. McLeroy might appreciate: boundless arrogance in those who control education is like untreated plaque in the mouths of children; left untreated, it eats away at the foundation of that which enables the nourishment of those who depend on us, of those who are our future.