Why Was Creationist Texas Ed Board Chair Barbara Cargill Interfering with the Science Textbook Reviews on Wednesday?

by Dan Quinn

According to at least one observer inside the Austin hotel ballroom where reviewers are going over proposed new science textbooks for Texas public schools, State Board of Education (SBOE) Chairwoman Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, spent much of Wednesday working with those supposedly independent panels. Cargill is one of the state board’s leading evolution critics. During a state Senate hearing last spring, for example, Cargill insisted that instructional materials should teach “another side” when discussing evolution.

Cargill reportedly spent time with all of the biology review panels but considerably more working with a panel that includes arch-creationist Raymond Bohlin, vice president of vision outreach for the fundamentalist Christian organization Probe Ministries in Plano. Bohlin is one of at least six creationists nominated by SBOE members to review the proposed new textbooks. The reviewers are charged with reporting to the Texas education commissioner and the SBOE whether the proposed textbooks and online instructional materials cover the state’s curriculum standards.

Publishers often make changes to their textbooks in response to objections raised by the review panels. All interaction between the review panels and publishers is outside of public view. State lawmakers in 1995 reined in the ability of SBOE members to pressure publishers into making changes to textbook content. Further, the state board’s own rules bar “contact with any publisher or other person having an interest in the content of instructional materials under evaluation by the panel [of reviewers].” That rule is intended to prevent undue influence on the reviewers. The interference of board members in the work of the independent review panels would appear to represent an end-run around both the law and the board’s own rules.

Indeed, Cargill’s interference with the work of the panels raises serious questions about the integrity of the review process:

  • Is it appropriate for the SBOE chair to be influencing the work of the independent review panels?
  • Did state board members authorize Cargill to speak to the panelists on the board’s behalf? Or did she choose on her own to insert herself in to the process? If so, why?
  • What did Cargill tell reviewers? Did she discuss evolution or her concerns about what the instructional materials say about evolution, which has been the most controversial topic in every science curriculum and textbook review that comes before the board?
  • Why did Cargill appear to spend so much time with one particular panel on Wednesday?
  • Does Cargill realize that the presence of the state board chair could be intimidating for reviewers or, at the very least, could exert undue influence on their work?

Cargill’s interference helps make clear the importance of shining some sunlight on this entire review process. Observers in the hotel ballroom, including the news media, are permitted to watch only from a distance. They are not privy to the interactions among review panelists themselves nor their interactions with publishers. Yet publishers make changes to their textbooks based on objections they hear from panelists. Now we know that Cargill, a politician with her own ideological agenda, has essentially inserted herself in to those interactions.

It would be no surprise if Texans began to see the adoption of new science textbooks for their schoolchildren as corrupted by the same “culture war” politics that have caused so many problems at the State Board of Education for years.