Turning Up the Heat on the State Board of Education

The political antics of the far-right faction that now controls the Texas State Board of Education has been attracting a lot of attention in the press. The faction has managed to make work on everything from adopting mathematics textooks to revising language arts and science curriculum standards strained and controversial. Unnecessary fights over those and other issues have undermined progress on the increasingly dysfunctional board.

This weekend the Houston Chronicle published a scathing editorial that scorched the board for undermining efforts to protect the religious freedom of students in public school elective classes about the Bible’s influence in history and literature:

In its 2007 session, the Texas Legislature managed to do something remarkable. It passed a broadly supported bill that allows school districts to develop academically rigorous courses on the Bible as literature, and it included carefully crafted safeguards to prevent schools from using the classes to teach religion or proselytize.

It took many hours of hard work and negotiation by members of the House Committee on Public Education to amend a bill written by Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, which sought to make the Bible classes mandatory for every school in the state. The committee version recognized the importance of the Bible as a literary work — one that plays a key role in helping students gain deeper understanding of Western culture, government and politics — at the same time ensuring that schools do not breach the constitutional ban against state religion.

It took almost no time, however, for the State Board of Education to undermine that effort.

Read the rest of this insightful editorial here.

Now the House Public Education Committee is focusing on the state board’s nonsense, scheduling a public hearing for Wednesday. The agenda is formal and tame, but fireworks are expected. Committee members are likely to grill board members about progress in developing the Bible class curriculum. In fact, it was this committee that last year amended House Bill 1287 to require the state board to develop new, specific standards for the course. But the board’s far-right faction is pushing for adoption of vague, very general “independent study” standards that barely mention the world “Bible.” In fact, social studies and literature teachers use those general standards to develop a variety of special courses that are not part of the regular school curriculum. The state board could vote on final approval of those general standards as early as Friday. Legislators are not pleased.

In addition, language arts teachers are hopping mad about how state board members treated them during the revision of the state’s language arts and reading curriculum this spring. The far-right faction ultimately threw out more than two years of work by teachers on a new language arts curriculum. Instead, the faction rammed through a document patched together overnight and slipped under hotel room doors just hours before a final vote. That’s clearly not a good way to develop smart education policies.

Expect some sharp words from a legion of teachers expected to testify at the Public Education Committee hearing. The Texas Freedom Network will testify as well. You should be able to watch the hearing over the Internet here. TFN Insider will also be blogging live from the meeting.