The battle over teaching the truth in Texas public schools moved back to the State Board of Education in 2022. A planned overhaul of standards that guide instruction in history, government, and other social studies classrooms came a year after Republican state lawmakers passed legislation censoring what schools can teach about topics like racism and discrimination. Tragically, many of the same forces behind that reckless legislation ultimately derailed the social studies revision at the state board, showing that the education of Texas students remains vulnerable to political hostage-taking.
The state board originally adopted the current social studies standards in 2010, a deeply controversial revision that ignited a media firestorm across the country. Those 2010 standards downplayed the history of slavery, required the teaching of myths and exaggerations about the role of religion in our government and laws, dismissed the separation of church and state, and pushed other far-right causes into classrooms.
Progressives and public education advocates weren’t the only critics. The misleading, right-wing slant evident throughout the standards approved by the board’s Republican majority was so bad that even the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute condemned the final document as a “politicized distortion of history” filled with “misrepresentations at every turn.” A minor revision in 2018 made some improvements, but the 2022 overhaul was a key opportunity to move strongly away from the flawed 2010 standards and ensure public schools can teach the truth.
Red Flags from the Start
TFN saw a big warning flag from the start. In January we raised the alarm about board Republicans appointing a far-right political activist to a key advisory panel for the revision. The activist had a history of divisive political advocacy and incendiary public statements that made his appointment to help revise curriculum standards for millions of public school students wildly inappropriate.
For example, he undermined respect for our nation’s democracy by calling President Biden’s election victory in 2020 a “coup” facilitated by widespread “fraud.” Weeks before the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, he urged then-President Trump’s supporters “into the streets” to stop change in presidential administrations. Just as appalling were essays and interviews in which he seemed to echo white nationalist conspiracy theorists who claim that “elites” are seeking to replace “traditional” Americans with immigrants.
Progress on Drafting the Standards
Republicans dismissed calls to reverse the appointment and better protect the advisory panel from political agendas, heightening fears that this new overhaul would be a repeat of the 2010 political circus. But workgroups made up of teachers and scholars proceeded over the course of the year in drafting the new standards.
The board was divided over whether to restructure social studies courses for Grades K-8, slowing progress on the revision. Even so, the workgroup drafts in August appeared to make major improvements over the current standards.
The drafts removed some—though not all—of the right-wing myths and political propaganda Republicans had forced into the current standards. For example, the workgroups deleted a requirement that students learn Moses from the Bible was a major influence on the U.S. Constitution, which scholars had repeatedly criticized as untrue. The drafts also made it clearer that slavery, not a mythical defense of “states’ rights,” was the central cause of the Civil War.
Just as importantly, the drafts did a far better job teaching about the experiences and contributions of the diverse communities that have shaped our nation—communities of color and women, in particular. And the drafts also included references to the historical significance of the movement for LGBTQIA+ equality over the past half-century.
Lies and Misinformation
Far-right groups in August launched an all-out assault on the drafts in August, with an avalanche of lies and information. They charged that the drafts were anti-Christian and anti-American. They even falsely claimed that efforts to ensure the new standards reflected the diversity of our nation violated state law barring the teaching of “critical race theory.” One group went so far as to quote a Bible verse to suggest that the teachers and scholars who had worked on the drafts deserved to be put to death:
TFN, working with a broad coalition of education and civil rights organizations in the Teach the Truth coalition, fought back. Hundreds of advocates supported the drafts in press conferences, public testimony before the board, and communications with board members throughout the summer and into the fall.
But in the end, the right’s unhinged campaign to kill the drafts overwhelmed legitimate debate about the best structure for teaching social studies classes for the early grades. Facing increasing pressure, including from far-right lawmakers, Republican board members buckled. They voted to reject the drafts and proceed with only limited changes to the standards required by state law.
The board has now called for further “study” on how to revise the standards and has pushed the social studies overhaul to no earlier than 2025. Until then, instruction in social studies classrooms will continue to be guided by the flawed standards adopted more than a dozen years and three presidents ago. Meanwhile, the board will turn to the adoption of new science textbooks in 2023. The recent election of new board members even further to the right means the debate over those new science textbooks will likely focus on what students should learn about climate change and even evolution.
We know the fight for our shared values, including making sure Texas kids are free to learn, will continue at the lege in 2023. Sign up to get involved here!