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Textbooks still provoke controversy

BY Gaiutra Bahadur
by Gaiutra Bahadur on 11/20/01.

The textbooks recently put on trial before the state's education board cover environmental science, but the controversy surrounding them invoked recent political history for some.

The debate was a flashback to a time when creationists squared off against teachers of evolution for equal exposure in biology books. Before lawmakers curbed its power, the board fought over whether texts should contain photographs of a career woman carrying a briefcase or line drawings of a female breast, used to demonstrate self-examination for cancer. Some members also found depictions of slavery to be too negative.

This time, when the board rejected one book and won changes in another in early November, the bout took place within the small ring, set by the Legislature in 1995, of whether the books got their facts straight.

On one side, Republicans said no, arguing that perspectives on the facts in the books made them environmentalist propaganda. Democrats counterpunched that those perspectives encouraged critical thinking.

The vote and surrounding furor raised the spectre that textbook selection in Texas remains a political process.

"I'd be very concerned if the board turned down a textbook based on disagreement with the publisher rather than on actual factual errors," said Lt. Governor Bill Ratliff, a key architect of the bill limiting the board's authority to reject textbooks who said he has not seen the disputed textbooks. "That's not what the law intended." One book, whose publisher would not amend some passages deemed harsh on capitalism, Christianity and America, didn't make it past the board. The elected body reversed its rejection of a second book after its author agreed to changes, including deleting a paragraph considered to be "anti-settler." And the third book _ supported by a group whose funds and leadership come chiefly from the mining industry _ survived initial scrutiny.

The board's decisions capped a process that began in 1999, when the state issued curriculum standards for each science book bound for classrooms in 2002. During the past seven months, a panel of more than 100 people, mainly teachers nominated by school districts, combed through the six books submitted, checking for compliance with the academic guidelines. (Publishers withdrew three books after receiving negative feedback.) Scientists from Texas A&M University, contracting with the state for $80,000, also winnowed errors from the texts.

But they were not the only fact-checkers. Outside advocacy groups, inheriting a role played by a fundamentalist Christian couple from Longview during previous textbook wars, submitted their own lists of errors to the board during public testimony. One of those heirs is the Texas Public Policy Foundation _ a conservative think tank whose members include the husband of education board member, Geraldine Miller.

"One of the important things we can do to support our teachers is to make sure they have the right materials," said J. Michael Sullivan, a spokesman for the group. "Textbooks are a little bit different from political manifestos. Facts mean not only what is said but also what is unsaid."

The three texts sparked a range of concerns about what they left unsaid, according to testimony before the education board and dozens of letters written to the Texas Education Agency and obtained by the Austin American-Statesman.

Central Texas resident Margie Raborn, for instance, criticized a box in "Global Science" listing ways people and governments could control population growth, after noting its "very positive support for abstinence."

The section "sounds as though (the publishers) support providing 'devices' and 'services' for birth control," she wrote. "Would these services include abortion?"

Raborn echoed points made by the small-government group Citizens for a Sound Economy, which concluded that the book's summary undermined capitalism.

Ironically, the book was first underwritten twenty years ago by the Mineral Information Institute, a group that includes mining companies. Ultimately the book's critics on the board _ led by Cynthia Thornton, a retired government teacher from Round Top and Austin's representative on the board _ withdrew their disapproval.

The rejected book, "Creating a Sustainable Future," raised the ire of conservatives such as state Rep. Rick Green, a Republican from Dripping Springs, for what they called radical environmentalist politics.

Its author, Daniel Chiras, has been active in the environmental movement. A professor of environmental policy at the University of Denver, he co-founded a group called Friends of Curbside Recycling and another called Speakers for a Sustainable Future, which offers slide presentations on recycling and water conservation. He lives in a solar-powered home in the Colorado Rockies.

Green, who faces a tough fight in his party's primary next year, said Chiras' book would "pump radical views into the hearts and minds of our children" and transform students into "guinea pigs" for political indoctrination.

The publisher of the book says Chiras does hold a perspective, but adds that did not warp its science or lead to mistakes.

"This book takes a bias to the environment, and it was rejected based on differences of opinion," said J. Michael Stranz, the editor-in-chief of Jones and Bartlett, based in Massachusetts. "Certainly, environmental science is an area in which opinions come into play. And the one our author has taken is that our lifestyle is not sustainable."

Stranz said he learned a lesson from the way the Texas board vetted his product.

"We shouldn't be wasting our time with bidding books into the process in states where there could be highly politicized conversations," he said.

His company, which primarily prints science texts for colleges, forfeited a high school market of about 30,000 in Texas. The state has the second largest textbook in the state but it has enough buyers elsewhere to cushion that loss. High schools in Maryland, New Jersey, California, Minnesota and Virginia and colleges in most states already buy the book.

Dallas-based J.M. LeBel Enterprises, which specializes in science texts specifically for high schools, had more of a stake in the education board's approval. It would have lost as much as $1.7 million if "How the World Works and Your Place In It" had been rejected.

"From our position, we wanted to sell the book and make it presentable for students," said John LeBel, a 15-year veteran of textbook approvals in Texas who maintains the book contained no factual errors.

Nevertheless, its author, retired high school science teacher Jane L. Person, pulled an all-nighter addressing some of the board's concerns.

She agreed to delete two sections stating that Native Americans and early American colonists had differing attitudes to fire and forests, the latter regarding them with fear, and to tilling the soil with steel ploughs. According to testimony provided by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the passages were anti-settler.

"I certainly didn't intend to be anti-settler. My ancestors were settlers," said Person, whose great grandfather homesteaded a farm in Missouri that she was raised on almost a century later.

Still, she said the passages weren't critical to the scientific spine of the book.

"I have no problem with deleting them. Perhaps it improves the quality of text," she said. "It certainly doesn't detract from it." She declined a recommendation, made by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, to add that Clinton administration officials are being investigated for misappropriation of certain funds. The information, she said, was political rather than scientific and would only be relevant if the investigations were complete and an effect on wildlife could be shown.

With the review of social studies texts slated for next year, publishers fear more disputes over what facts should be included in books for the state's public schools. But that scrutiny, says Texas Public Policy Foundation's Sullivan, should be welcomed.

"Part of it is your definition of fact," he said. "If by facts, we want to say the only thing that counts is two plus two equals four, then we did more than (check facts). But a factual check means more than that. I can put together a text that factually quotes the pogroms of Stalin and doesn't contain things like most people condemn his actions."

Gaiutra Bahadur writes for the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman. E-mail: gbahadur(at)statesman.com1.

LOAD-DATE: November 27, 2001