SBOE: Reading, Writing, and Fighting Socialism

SBOE passes new education standards along party lines

Last week's SBOE debate over a new social studies curriculum drew national attention – and scorn.
Last week's SBOE debate over a new social studies curriculum drew national attention – and scorn. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Remember the old days, when hardly anyone noticed the State Board of Education? Those days are long gone. The whole world has taken notice of the shenanigans of the SBOE's hard-right faction, and news media from well beyond Texas' borders flocked to Austin last week to watch the spectacle as the board debated and eventually passed a new social studies curriculum for public school children.

There was plenty for the media to gawk at. Two packed days of public testimony preceded the Friday vote, with more than 200 people weighing in, including education and history experts and members of the Legislature begging the board to rethink its attempt to insert arch-conservative ideology into the standards. They were countered by right-wing supporters of the board majority who have bought into the notions that education has been taken over by America-hating academics, that constitutionally mandated separation of church and state is a myth, and, as outgoing board member (and former chair) Don McLeroy put it, "The left's principles are diametrically opposed to our founding principles." (McLeroy was defeated in March's Republican primary.)

In the end, the board rejected calls to delay the decision until a new board is seated in January (McLeroy wasn't the only one defeated in March, and November's general election could shake things up even more) and voted along party lines 9-5 (Dallas' Tincy Mil­ler was absent) to implement the new standards. The board had so heavily amended what was originally crafted that six of the nine members of the curriculum-writing team for high school American history eventually issued a statement blasting the standards.

As has been the case at SBOE meetings over the past few years, as the fundamentalists have waged culture-war battles, the highlights are simply too numerous to list in full, but here is a handful.

Rod Paige, the former U.S. secretary of education under George W. Bush, told the board, "We in Texas have allowed ourselves to get into a position where we've allowed ideology to drive and define the standards of our Texas curriculum."

Before the final vote, outgoing board member Cynthia Dunbar led an invocation in which she said that America was founded with the "objective" of establishing "a Christ­ian land governed by Christian principles." (Dun­­bar, who represents District 10, which includes North Austin, did not run for re-election.)

Efforts to get labor leader Dolores Huerta restored to third-grade history standards as an example of "good citizenship" failed. Huerta's name was removed back in a January vote, with board members criticizing her socialist beliefs. Helen Keller, also a socialist, remained in the standards.

Some members insisted that President Barack Obama be referred to in the standards only with the inclusion of his middle name, Hussein. That kind of snideness was too much even for some of the board's Republicans, and it was struck down.

After it was over, Kathy Miller – president of the Texas Freedom Network, an organization that combats the religious right and has tracked the SBOE closely – said the end results were "really symptoms of the larger problem – allowing politicians with personal agendas to write our children's curriculum, rather than teachers and scholars. That's why today's vote is not the end of this fight. It's the beginning."

What lies ahead? New board members could possibly try to reopen the standards debate next year, when moderates will be seated – as said, McLeroy was defeated by the more middle-of-the-road Thomas Ratliff, and Dunbar's seat will be fought over by Democrat Judy Jennings and Republican Marsha Farney, who billed herself as the "common sense conservative" and defeated Dunbar's hand-picked successor. Less certain is whether Texas State professor Rebecca Bell-Metereau can knock off fundamentalist Ken Mercer.

In any case, there's a potential obstacle in the way – the board's agenda is set by the board chair, who is Gail Lowe, part of the fundamentalist bloc. Democratic gubernatorial nominee Bill White vowed to "undo some of the damage" if he's elected (he'd appoint a new board chair from among the elected body, he said), but of course, that's a big if.

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State Board of Education, Don McLeroy, Cynthia Dunbar, Kathy Miller, Texas Freedom Network

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