The Political Circus at the Texas State Board of Education

by Dan Quinn

The State Board of Education’s adoption of new social studies textbooks this week appears to be turning — all too predictably — into another political circus that shuts out the public as well as scholars and other experts.

Board members, including Chairwoman Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, continue — in private — to pressure publishers into making changes to their proposed textbooks. This means the public has limited ability to examine and express their opinions about changes to which publishers are agreeing behind closed doors. That is especially troubling if publishers feel compelled to continue making changes all the way up to Friday’s meeting and final vote on which textbooks the SBOE will adopt.

On Wednesday, Ms. Cargill successfully resisted an effort by board members to tell publishers that the board will not consider further changes proposed after noon today (Thursday). The purpose of that deadline was to prevent last-minute revisions that board members and interested members of the public won’t have time to review and vet with scholars, teachers and other experts before the final vote.

Just as troubling is that some board members continue to wave away — as we saw at the Tuesday public hearing — the concerns of actual scholars while accepting at face value the complaints of activists making unsubstantiated and outright false allegations. Frankly, on Tuesday it seemed that even the most unqualified individual with a complaint about the textbooks would be treated as a legitimate source of information if his or her views somehow aligned with the political views of certain board members. Some examples:

  • One testifier on Tuesday claimed that the U.S. History digital textbook from WorldView Software calls U.S. General Douglas MacArthur a racist. Some board members appeared to accept the claim at face value. Yet the publisher (in a detailed response now posted on the Texas Education Agency website) flatly rejects the charge, and we have been unable to find any such reference to MacArthur as a racist in that publisher’s American history materials.
  • Another testifier, a reviewer for the anti-Muslim group Truth in Texas Textbooks, complained on Tuesday that a textbook from Cengage/National Geographic calls the United States a “representative democracy” instead of a “constitutional republic.” That led to demands from some board members to reject the textbook for containing a “factual error.” Yet a simple check of a document already turned over by the publisher on November 6 shows that the publisher had already revised the relevant passage, which now refers to the United States as the “first modern country to establish a federal republic” and points out (accurately) that the country is also “often referred to as a representative democracy.”
  • A claim on Tuesday by another testifier that the Cengage/National Geographic text is somehow linked to the Common Core standards also led some board members to insist on rejecting it. But there are no Common Core standards for social studies. Nevertheless, some board members still claimed that the Cengage/National Geographic product was violating Texas law. Then in a separate discussion on Wednesday, the board spent precious time debating whether to ask the Legislature to criminalize teaching with instructional materials tied to Common Core. (The motion failed.)

The eagerness by some SBOE members to accept such complaints without any verification raises serious questions about whether the final Friday vote on which textbooks to adopt will be based on facts and the recommendations of scholars or on the political and personal beliefs of board members themselves.