SBOE Throws School Districts Under the Busby
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.