Politics of Education: New Texas Social Sciences Curriculum Standards Fraught with Ideology, Critics Say

Critics: conservative board of education is inserting right-wing agenda.

May 21, 2010, 8:06 AM

May 21, 2010— -- The Texas State Board of Education today approved controversial new standards for its social studies curriculum that could affect what students across the country study in their classes.

The 15-member board dominated by conservative Republicans rejected calls for a delay and voted 9-5 to establish new standards for textbooks and teaching history, economics and other civics classes that will take effect in August 2011.

The new standards call for a greater focus on the Biblical and Christian traditions of the founding fathers. It also calls for the teaching of free market principles, how government taxation and regulation can serve as restrictions to private enterprise, and emphasizes the achievements of Republican leaders, including former President Ronald Reagan and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

The new curriculum also states that the system of the U.S. government be called a "Constitutional Republic" rather than a "Democratic society." Additionally, it inserts a "Celebrate Freedom Week" during which Texas students will study the importance of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

"It's imperative that our children be taught the original direction of our country," board member and former chair Don McLeroy, who was voted out of office earlier this year, told ABC News. "And I think you tie that in with the concept of American exceptionalism that we've added to the standards. I think that it's important to understand why America is such a wonderful place."

McLeroy wrote in an op-ed in USA Today last month that the standards "challenge the powerful ideology of the left," whose "principles are diametrically opposed to our founding principles." But the self-described "Christian fundamentalist" argues that the board, which appointed a panel of experts last year to make recommendations, has not overreached on the ideological front.

"All we're doing is we're completing the story. We're restoring the balance," he said. "I think we're swinging to the middle."

Critics charge that the standards are a blatant attempt to insert an ideological and political agenda into Texas classrooms.

"Every child in Texas deserves the right to have authentic history. ... Not history that ought to promote somebody's political ideology," said Rod Paige, who served as Education secretary under President George W. Bush and a former superintendent of the Houston Independent School District -- the largest district in the state.

"I'm not so naive that I don't understand that the board's political leanings will be a part of it but I just think that it swings the pendulum too far. Right now it's moving too far to the right," Paige, a Republican, told ABC News.

The standards have drawn criticism from all fronts. Minority groups say that it doesn't place enough emphasis on the achievements of Hispanic leaders and merely skims through key historical events in the civil rights era. Civil rights groups charge that the Republican-heavy Board of Education simply wanted to inject a conservative, ideological agenda that dismisses historians' viewpoint.

"The problem is they want to put an emphasis on certain people and spotlight on certain people in history who are all predominantly Anglo-Americans," said Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU's Texas chapter. "We should've had historians and educators overseeing the curriculum requirements. Instead, these board members who don't have any more expertise than I do have imposed their personal beliefs, their own ideological agenda, on this curriculum."

Some academics say there's too much ideological slant in the standards and not enough emphasis on problem solving and analytical thinking.

"The political debate over who's on the list has kind of hijacked the process," said Keith Erekson, assistance professor of history at University of Texas, El Paso. "Nobody's even asking, is laundry list a good way to design an entire education system?"

On Tuesday, members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), community leaders, teachers and organizations rallied in Austin, Texas, against the proposed amendments.

The debate over the standards reached a fever pitch Wednesday, when more than 200 speakers lined up to testify in an intense and chaotic public board meeting over standards that lasted more than 12 hours. Since the review process for the social studies kicked off in January, 2009, the board has received more than 22,000 comments, and that number is growing. More than 300 amendments have been offered since January alone.

With 4.7 million students in public schools, Texas boasts the nation's second-largest school system, and is the second largest purchaser of textbooks, after California. Publishers often tailor textbooks to meet standards set by Texas because the state buys so many books. That means schools across the country are likely to be affected and students could be learning more about free market principles and Christian traditions than they had bargained for.

"Nationwide our textbooks are used in 47, maybe 48 states so it's going to have an impact across the country," Burke said. "Textbook publishers want to ensure that their textbook content meets the Texas standards. ... That impact is huge."

What textbook publishers may do is add the new information required by the state of Texas into sidebars or subsections, professor Erekson said, and remove those for editions printed for other states. But the changes are already causing a national uproar.

In California -- the nation's largest buyer of textbooks -- Democratic state Sen. Leland Yee introduced a bill this month that would require California's Board of Education to look out for any Texas content when reviewing its books.

The proposed changes in Texas "pose a serious threat" to the California's education code, "as well as a threat to the apolitical nature of public school governance and academic content standards in California," the bill states.

Role of Religion Stirs Heated Debate

The new standards infuse greater emphasis on the role of religion among the founding fathers, a role that some historians say is questionable but others argue is part of history.

For example, the standards for high school call for students to "explain major political ideas in history, including the laws of nature and nature's God, unalienable rights." These words replaced the original requirement to explain "natural law, natural rights." The review panel of experts, who are handpicked by board members, recommended the board add a line that requires students to "identify major intellectual, philosophical, political, and religious traditions that informed the American founding, including Judeo-Christian (especially Biblical law)."

Evangelical minister Peter Marshall, who served as one of the experts on the review panel, argues that the state's curriculum is "seriously defective" and that the Biblical motivations of the founding fathers is an important part of history that should be included in the curriculum.

"Part of the problem today is we have a politically correct whitewashing revisionist history approach that tends to simply tar with the same brush in sweeping inaccurate, false generalizations," said Marshall, who serves as president of Massachusetts-based Peter Marshall Ministries and has written three faith-based books. "What I want to do is simply treat it accurately and correctly so there aren't any hidden agendas."

Daniel Dreisbach, a professor at American University, served on the panel as well and argues that scholarly literature shows the importance of Christianity in the lives of the settlers.

"Bible was the most frequently cited source in political literature," he said. "It would do a disservice to students if they weren't aware what was the most-cited source and I think it would be very worrisome."

But critics argue that the language in the standards promotes a Christian perspective that doesn't correctly represent the diversity of religious beliefs.

"This kind of Christian view of America is trying to paint the founding fathers as someone who could walk straight into a Joel Osteen convention and fit right in and so we lose this sense of context," Erekson said.

Erekson and nearly 800 other college history professors signed a letter decrying the standards. Erekson, who was one of 120 people who testified in front of the board on Wednesday, argues that the standards should be focused less on adding political figures and more on teaching kids how to grapple with new sources of information on the Internet.

"In this kind of world where knowledge is growing, we should be paying more attention to how to help students deal with knowledge, helping them understand it," he said. "There's nothing in the standards that would help someone Google search George Washington… how do I know which is the good one? That's the kind of skill I think we have the opportunity to teach and we're missing the opportunity."

The new standards won't take effect until 2011, but until the heated debate is expected to continue until then. The Hispanic and African American caucus of the Texas state legislature is reviewing whether the board of education overstepped its bounds, but no organizations are currently threatening a legal challenge.

Cost is another issue that could have an impact on when the standards are implemented. New social studies textbooks are estimated to cost more than $1 billion. The state paid a similar amount for new science text books last year, and with Texas facing as much as a $20 million budget shortfall, some say there shouldn't be a rush to implement the new curriculum.