Texas board voting on textbook review rule changes

WILL WEISSERT, Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas’ longstanding cultural battle over textbook content could be inching toward a cease-fire.

The State Board of Education will vote Friday on tightening rules for who can serve on citizen review panels that scrutinize textbooks for classrooms statewide, suggesting teachers or professors be given priority for subjects in their areas of expertise.

In past years, some social and religious conservatives have volunteered for the panels and raised objections about science texts with extensive lessons on climate change and evolution. Those volunteers also used separate panels to suggest updates to the state’s curriculum to emphasize the importance of Christian doctrine in the founding of America.

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The 15-member education board has final approval on textbook recommendation and curriculum, but its members are influenced by the review panels. Critics have long complained that a few activists with religious or ideological objections have too much power to shape what more than 5 million Texas public school students learn.

“We don’t need lay people making these highly specific and technical decisions on these books,” said Thomas Ratliff, a Mount Pleasant Republican who is the chief proponent for the mandate, during the board’s meeting in November.

Election defeats have weakened the social conservative bloc that used to dominate the board, which now features a majority of moderate Republicans and Democrats.

Still, Texas is so large that edits it demands can affect textbooks sold in many other parts of the country. A 2011 law allows Texas’ school districts to choose their own books and e-readers regardless of state approval — but many still buy board-sanctioned books.

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Though modest, the changes could have a major impact in Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry bragged during his 2011 presidential campaign that students were taught both evolution and creationism. The previous year, the education board approved social studies curriculum in which children learned that the words “separation of church and state” are not in the Constitution and were asked to evaluate whether the United Nations undermines U.S. sovereignty.

All the proposed changes during Friday’s regular meeting deal only with textbook reviews and won’t stop larger clashes by education board members about textbooks. They also won’t affect panels that vet proposed curriculums.

One proposal would require all portions of proposed books to be reviewed by at least two panel members, so that a single volunteer can’t raise objections. Other rules would let panelists submit majority and minority reports about proposed materials to the board, and restrict board members’ contact with reviewers so as not to unfairly influence them.

A more ambitious plan that would have allowed the education board to remove panelists for inappropriate behavior failed Wednesday night on a 9-6 vote.

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Helping to spark the proposed changes were two review panelists who raised concerns about new high school science textbooks this summer. A chemical engineer who is an avowed evolution skeptic, and a nutritionist who believes in “creation science” questioned a biology book’s assertions on natural selection, arguing the theory of evolution is only part of the explanation for how life on Earth began.

The Board of Education eventually approved all the proposed books, but only after tumultuous late-night debate.