Signs of Hope at the Texas State Board of Education

Thursday’s meeting of the State Board of Education‘s Committee on Instruction was, well, instructive. It also offered hope that elections in 2010 and this year might — just might — be moderating the board’s obsession with the “culture wars.”

We told you on Tuesday that religious-righters were planning to use the committee meeting to attack a curriculum management system called CSCOPE. Education Service Centers — regional centers created by the state in the 1960s — collaborated to develop the program and sell it to school districts. But some political activists seem to think those 20 regional centers are hotbeds of anti-Christian bigotry and Marxism, elements of which they claim to have found throughout the CSCOPE program.

Thursday’s meeting was instructive because it showed two conflicting sides of the state board: one that too readily feeds off (and even encourages) the “culture war” nonsense that bubbles up from the right-wing fever swamp, and another that reflects a true desire to focus on real issues and ensure that Texas kids get a quality education. Thursday’s meeting was hopeful because the latter side of the state board ultimately won the day.

Over the course of about six hours, board members heard from a variety of people, especially educators and parents. Some praised CSCOPE for helping teachers and students and saving districts money. Others argued that the program has errors and is poorly crafted and inflexible. Among the biggest complaints was that parents had a hard time getting access to the CSCOPE materials their kids were using in their classrooms. That criticism was contradicted by others who spoke, but it still opened the door to some of the most bizarre claims — that CSCOPE is really all about mind control and promoting Marxism, anti-Christian bigotry and pro-Muslim bias. One person even compared CSCOPE to Nazi Germany.

Not surprisingly, some of the usual suspect on the state board fed off the most outrageous claims, seeming to accept them at face value. Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, demanded “balance” in CSCOPE’s treatment of Christianity, Islam and other religions. Terri Leo, R-Spring, was especially petulant when insisting — over and over — that all of the problems she was hearing would disappear if only the state board had authority over CSCOPE. Charlie Garza, R-El Paso, often sounded like a bully cross-examining his prey on the playground.

Fortunately, Garza and Leo won’t be returning to the board in January. Garza lost his re-election bid, while Leo chose not to run again for her seat. But perhaps most encouraging was the serious and balanced approach that other board members took. Most were voices of reason throughout, including two members TFN is often critical of — Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, and Gail Lowe, R-Lampasas.  Cargill — who serves as board chair — and Lowe asked the right questions and responsibly (and respectfully) prodded CSCOPE developers to address legitimate concerns about parents’ access to curriculum materials and how errors are identified and corrected. For the most part they refused to indulge those who sought to portray CSCOPE as essentially a money-grubbing operation on a nefarious mission to undermine faith in the free enterprise system, patriotism and Christianity in our public schools.

What might this mean when the State Board of Education — which will have eight new faces among its 15 members — meets again in January? We can’t know yet whether members will renew the “culture war” battles over evolution and other hot-button issues that have undermined the board’s work in recent years. We suspect some will try. But perhaps there’s reason to hope that they won’t get nearly as far as they have in the past.