War by the (Text)book

The State Board of Education's first public hearing on social studies textbooks confirmed that, underneath the thin cloak of bureaucratic civility, an ideological battle is raging over whose story the textbooks should tell.

Citizens from Brownsville spoke in favor of greater representation in social studies textbooks of hispanic-American history.
Citizens from Brownsville spoke in favor of greater representation in social studies textbooks of hispanic-American history. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

The State Board of Education's first public hearing on social studies textbooks, held July 17, drew more than 60 citizens eager to voice their concerns about errors, biases, and omissions in the 150 books up for approval. The hearing confirmed that, underneath the thin cloak of bureaucratic civility, an ideological battle is raging over whose story the textbooks should tell.

At times, the hearing provided stark examples of tunnel vision and divisiveness. Eleanor Hutcheson, representing the Daughters of the American Revolution, pointed to a Holt textbook that included the story of Annie Mae Hunt, an African-American woman who worked throughout the Depression by cooking and cleaning houses. "The teacher is then directed to ask the class how discrimination affected her life," Hutcheson said. "Times were hard for everyone back then, and here is a woman who managed to keep herself working throughout the Depression. That doesn't sound like discrimination to me." Board Member Alma Allen responded, "I'm a black woman. Look -- [Hunt] faced discrimination, and you just don't understand ... that is staying in the book."

In many states, textbooks are chosen on a district or school-by-school basis, but Texas buys books through a statewide process that involves public input and approval by the board's 15 elected members. In theory, this provides parents with some say in what their children learn in school. However, conservatives currently dominate the process: This year a well-organized coalition of nine conservative groups, including the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the Eagle Forum, and Citizens for a Sound Economy, has organized 250 readers to comment on textbooks.

A 1995 state law limiting the board to correcting factual errors has done little to remove politics from the debate. Last year conservative philanthropist and Texas Public Policy Foundation founder James Leininger helped fund a well-organized effort to reject Environmental Science: Creating a Sustainable Future, a textbook that he considered anti-Christian and anti-capitalist. The board did so, voting 10-5 along party lines. Instead, many Texas schoolchildren will read Global Science: Energy, Resources, Environment, supported by a consortium of mining companies. Texas Citizens for a Sound Economy Director Peggy Venable says Environmental Science's defeat caused publishers competing for shares of the Texas textbook market (at $345 million, the second-largest in the country) to rethink the contents of their textbooks.

"I think the rejection of that book was really a wake-up call for publishers," she said. "This time around, we have had several publishers call and ask us for input before the hearings even started." Board politics aside, the bidding is long and costly for publishers: Before even entering the process, they spend months making sure their books include every point covered by the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills guidelines.

Watchdog groups and moderate board members increasingly worry that textbooks may already express a conservative viewpoint before the board or the public even sees them. Jones and Bartlett, publisher of the popular college and advanced placement textbook Out of Many, withdrew the volume from the review process after the SBOE's Republican chairwoman, Grace Shore, objected to a passage asserting that 50,000 women living in the Old West turned to prostitution to eke out a living. Since Jones and Bartlett withdrew their text, Shore's objection did not violate any state laws. However, other board members said citizens should have been able to read the book themselves before Shore weighed in on the process.

"I thought that Out of Many looked like one of the better books," said Mary Helen Berlanga, a democrat from Corpus Christi. "This is a book for high school seniors, and they shouldn't be treated like little children. We are trying to create an open process for textbook approval, and these actions violate the spirit of that."

The conservative lobby's effectiveness leaves mainstream Texans trying to catch up late in the game. The Austin-based Texas Freedom Network, a watchdog organization founded to monitor the religious right, has started a campaign dubbed "I Object!" to enlist parents and other interested parties to participate in this year's public hearings; so far, over a hundred textbook readers have joined. "The majority of Texans want non-ideological textbooks in the schools," says TFN Executive Director Samantha Smoot, "but since the far right has been able to dominate the process, we end up with censored textbooks."

Indeed, many of the parents, teachers, and educators who commented before the board were much more concerned with what is not in the books. Tony Bonilla, a Corpus Christi attorney and former League of United Latin American Citizens president, was one of about 20 Texans who complained that the amount of Hispanic history in the textbooks was woefully inadequate. "I am sick of people wrapping themselves in the flag, only to trample on the history of people who have lived here for centuries," said Bonilla. "We want to be part of the American dream as well, and I hope that you can send a message to the publishers that these textbooks need to be more inclusive of all people."

The board will hold two more public hearings, on Aug. 23 and Sept. 11, and will cast its final vote on Nov. 14.

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