Two big problems got the most attention at last week’s State Board of Education discussion of proposed revisions to social studies curriculum standards for Texas public schools: the whitewashing of slavery’s role in causing the Civil War and exaggerations of the influence of religion on the American founding. Unfortunately, we saw warning signs that some state board members still aren’t ready to #TeachTheTruth.
As we already reported, curriculum teams made up of educators and scholars have proposed revisions to the current social studies standards. A number of those revisions correct bad history and politically biased requirements the state board forced into the standards in 2010. That’s encouraging since even reviewers for the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute have called the current standards a “politicized distortion of history.” But last week’s public hearing and board discussion brought objections from some board members.
The proposed revisions rightly keep standards about the profound influence of religion in American and world history. But some board members were upset that the curriculum teams proposed removing exaggerations the board approved in 2010 in an effort to promote “Christian nation” ideology pushed by religious-right activists and pressure groups.
Board member Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, even suggested — falsely — that the curriculum teams appeared to remove Christianity and Judaism “everywhere.” In fact, standards addressing both religions and their influences in history and society remain prominent throughout the various social studies courses.
Among his numerous objections, Mercer opposed correcting a standard that currently suggests separation of church and state isn’t a key constitutional principle. In addition, some board members criticized the removal of Moses and “biblical law” from standards about major influences on the American founding. And they didn’t like the removal of a requirement that students learn “the development of democratic-republican government” had origins in the “Judeo-Christian legal tradition.”
Slavery and the Civil War
On the other hand, we were encouraged by some of the board discussions about whether the standards will continue to downplay the role of slavery in causing the Civil War and glorify Confederate heroes like “Stonewall” Jackson. A number of testifiers at the public hearing called on the board to fix those standards. We saw little resistance to those calls among board members, but a key issue will be whether the standards continue to promote the “states’ rights” myth long pushed by defenders of the Confederacy but rejected by actual historians.
The board took on this revision — what’s being called a “streamlining” — because the 2010 board bloated the standards with hundreds of changes to drafts from curriculum teams at the time. Teachers have struggled to teach all of the personal heroes, pet causes and politicized inaccuracies the board crammed into the standards eight years ago. But some board members last week voiced their objections to various proposals removing at least some of the misinformation and unnecessary details.
Mercer was one of the worst offenders. Among his objections: a proposed correction to a standard that currently suggests McCarthyism’s reckless red-baiting and smears in the 1940s and 1950s were somehow justified. He was also offended by a proposal that students no longer be required to learn specifically about the National Rifle Association. (In a prime example of how the 2010 board bloated the standards with unnecessary specifics and pet causes, students are currently required to learn about the NRA along with a list of other conservative icons in a standard about politics in the 1980s and 1990s.)
So we clearly saw warning signs that old habits die hard for some board members. Getting political agendas out of the standards and Texas classrooms won’t be easy.
The curriculum teams must finalize their recommendations for the board this summer. The board will hold a second public hearing in September (likely Sept. 11 or 12). A final vote is set for November. Stay tuned.