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A Chance for Parents to Pick What their Kids Learn

on 4/4/02.

Parents of public schoolchildren, pay attention.

Special-interest groups are gearing up to select your children's history, geography and economics textbooks. Some of these groups support initiatives such as vouchers, which would divert money from your children's public schools. And those same groups want to narrow your schools' choices of textbooks.

In some cases, so-called citizens' groups are working behind the scenes with State Board of Education members and textbook publishers to determine content of textbooks. That means a small group of people, pushing narrow agendas, is trying to dictate what 4 million Texas children see and study in their textbooks.

You can stop them.

The Legislature wisely gave local school districts power to select books, recognizing that Texas' 1,050 school districts are diverse in population and values. State law is crystal clear. It limits the authority of the Austin bureaucracy -- State Board of Education -- and the interests that lobby them 24-7.

Know your rights and exercise them.

Under Texas law, the education board must approve textbooks that are free of errors, are properly constructed and contain at least 50 percent of the state's academic standards. Local school districts then get to choose from among a broad and lengthy list of textbooks best suited for their students.

Lawmakers shifted that power to local communities to stop textbook wars on the education board that often ended with costly revisions to publishers that had little to do with the facts. The board fought over whether books should contain photographs of a career woman toting a briefcase or line drawings of a female breast to demonstrate self-examination for cancer. Some board members pushed publishers to depict the slavery era in a more positive light.

The board's nationally known disputes over textbooks cost Texas plenty. Schools had fewer choices, books were more narrowly focused and publishers -- forced to make last-minute, costly changes to satisfy a religious or social agenda -- became leery of the Texas market.

School districts have a powerful incentive to use books provided by the state education board: They don't cost districts a dime. They are paid for with profits from the $20 billion Permanent School Fund, which the education board oversees.

Lawmakers fixed the problem. Or did they?

Several interest groups pushing narrow agendas have found a clever way to circumvent state law. Citizens for a Sound Economy and the Texas Public Policy Foundation a few months ago torpedoed some environmental science books by claiming they were rife with "errors." In reality, those "errors" were ideological differences. A majority of the education board, swayed by their large turnout and political savvy, rejected a factually correct book that those groups deemed to be harsh on capitalism, Christianity and America. Another book, targeted by those interests, ultimately was approved after the publisher agreed to an 11th-hour revision deleting passages that were "anti-settler."

Get involved.

There is much at stake. This year the State Board of Education is buying social studies books -- including history, geography and economics textbooks -- for grades one through 12. Prototypes of those books will be available at the Region 13 Service Center (which covers Austin, Round Rock, Eanes, Leander and many other Central Texas districts) on Springdale Road at the end of this month. Those books can be checked out by parents or others who want to review or inspect them. Then show up at one of three public hearings on the textbooks in July, August and September.

If public school supporters fail to show up, their voices will be drowned out by narrow interests.