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Back to the basics: Define 'fact'

by TERRENCE STUTZ on 12/2/01.

It was a scene reminiscent of the fractious textbook battles in Texas from years past.

Speaker after speaker railed against proposed science textbooks at a public hearing in Austin last month, calling the books un-American, anti-Christian, and unfit for students.

State Board of Education members responded by rejecting the most controversial book up for adoption and, in doing so, took a major step toward restoring the authority over textbooks that they lost six years ago.

For the first time since the Legislature reined in their textbook review powers in a 1995 school reform law, board members turned down a book - one targeted by social conservative groups and their allies on the board.

Although Texas law permits the board to reject a book for factual errors, board members seized on what their critics say are differences of opinion, not errors of fact, to scuttle the science text on a 10-5 vote.

As an example, critics pointed to a statement in the science book that the federal Endangered Species Act is one of the toughest and most successful environmental laws in the country. Opponents of the textbook called that an error, saying the animal-protection law actually is bad for some species.

A review panel of science professors at Texas A&M University and the Science Teachers Association of Texas had given the book good marks. And several colleges use the book, Environmental Science: Creating a Sustainable Future, published by Jones and Bartlett Publishers of Sudbury, Mass.

Board member David Bradley of Beaumont, who voted against the book, said he believes the action will send a clear signal to textbook publishers that the panel's conservative majority will not be restrained by legislative fiat.

"We're winning the battle," he said, referring to the efforts of board members who favor a more active role in reviewing textbooks.

"We are seeing a change in the attitude of publishers. They are starting to work with conservative groups and textbook critics who more accurately reflect the viewpoint of most Texans. I really think the pendulum is swinging back to a more traditional, conservative value system in our schools." Among the conservative critics cited by Mr. Bradley are Mel and Norma Gabler of Longview.

Samantha Smoot of the Texas Freedom Network, a political watchdog group that has often sparred with social conservatives, warned that Texas might be headed back to the days when textbooks were censored for content with which board members disagreed. For example, the board once banned mention of evolution in science books.

Nationwide effect

"There is a real danger that publishers will get the message that Texas is unfriendly to academically challenging textbooks and only wants books that fall within narrow, hard-right political parameters," Ms. Smoot said.

Textbook decisions in Texas reverberate across the nation because the state is one of the largest textbook purchasers in the nation. Publishers whose books are adopted in Texas generally market them in dozens of other states.

Unhappy with the board's annual fights over evolution, sex education, and other politically sensitive subjects in textbooks, state lawmakers stripped away most of the panel's textbook review powers and gave more authority to local school districts.

The 1995 law directed that the board could reject a book only if it has factual errors, does not cover the curriculum or is manufactured poorly.

Ms. Smoot said the board's conservative majority is putting its politics ahead of the law.

"They have redefined a factual error as something that doesn't agree with their extremist political philosophy," she said, citing board objections to coverage of such topics as global warming and the Endangered Species Act.

All 10 Republicans on the panel, including five members with close ties to religious and social conservative groups, voted to reject the book, while the five Democrats supported adoption. Rejection means the state will not purchase the book.

One Democrat on the board, Mary Helen Berlanga of Corpus Christi, called the factual-errors rationale a smokescreen. She pointed out that even state Education Commissioner Jim Nelson and his staff said there were no factual errors.

"The board has no authority to do this," she said. "This is nothing but censorship."

Acting Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, author of the 1995 law, said he "would be very concerned if the board turned down a textbook based on disagreement with the publisher rather than on actual factual errors. That's not what the law intended."

Mr. Bradley took strong exception to the criticism, insisting the book was rejected because of numerous factual errors.

"It is a judgment call. It is subjective, and we are the only people in the textbook adoption process who are accountable to the voters and the taxpayers," he said, calling the book "seriously flawed."

The debate called to mind the frequent textbook battles that flared up in Texas through the 1980s and early 1990s.

Led by conservative textbook critics Mel and Norma Gabler, social conservatives had a strong influence over the content of textbooks adopted in Texas and used in classrooms here and across the nation.

That influence was interrupted for four years in the late 1980s when the Legislature stepped in and created an appointed board, whose members had moderate political views.

After a few years, the board returned to elected status, and social conservatives, using the political blueprint of the Rev. Pat Robertson to win grass-roots elections across the country, launched successful campaigns to win seats in Texas.

San Antonio millionaire James Leininger, who supports giving public money to private schools, helped bankroll the elections last decade with political action committees that sent thousands of dollars to candidates.

Authority curtailed

Six years ago, after religious and social conservatives moved close to a board majority, the Legislature stepped in to sharply curtail the textbook board 's authority.

In the most recent fight, opponents of the science text came armed with a list of factual errors compiled by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think-tank established by Mr. Leininger. Among the members of the foundation's board is Vance Miller of Dallas, husband of State Board of Education member Geraldine Miller.

The state board originally considered four environmental science books. One was approved. A second, published by J.M. LeBel Enterprises of Dallas, was initially turned down but subsequently approved after the company agreed to make changes to appease critics. The textbook board rejected the Jones and Bartlett book, and its publisher withdrew a fourth book that had triggered opposition.

The books will be purchased for Texas schools beginning with the 2002-03 school year.

Dean DeChambeau, an executive of Jones and Bartlett Publishers, said in an interview that the company is willing to correct any real factual errors.

"We weren't willing to change the author's presentation of material so that it reflected the personal biases of groups who opposed the book - and that is what they asked us to do," Mr. DeChambeau said.

According to a majority of board members, the book was factually wrong to say that President Bush's national energy plan would open a "major portion" of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration. They said it was a small portion.

Moreover, they said the book exaggerates the problem of global warming and air pollution in the country's major cities.

Although the Texas Public Policy Foundation said it wanted to eliminate politics from the books, it sought to include in the LeBel book a sentence about Clinton administration officials being investigated for mishandling of federal funds. The publisher rejected that request.

Political views

Texas Democratic Party Chairwoman Molly Beth Malcolm said those and most of the other criticisms of the books were based on political views rather than academic principles.

"Current public school students will not be prepared for college or the world beyond if a small group of extremists are allowed to force their narrow political views on the public school system of our state," she said.

However, another conservative group that opposed the Jones and Bartlett book, Texas Citizens for a Sound Economy, called its rejection a victory for Texas schoolchildren, patriotism, democracy, and free enterprise.

"The board sent a strong message to textbook publishers that Texas students deserve quality materials, free from activist agendas," said Peggy Venable, director of the group.

Criticism of Environmental Science: Creating a Sustainable Future by Daniel D. Chiras. Published by Jones and Bartlett Publishers of Sudbury, Mass.

TEXTBOOK: Author states that global warming is a serious environmental problem caused by the heavy reliance on fossil fuels in many counties.

PERCEIVED TEXT ERRORS CRITICISM: The global warming theory, like the global cooling theory that immediately preceded it, has many flaws and may not take into account other phenomena of which we know very little.

TEXTBOOK: Author calls the federal Endangered Species Act one of the toughest and most successful environmental laws in the United States.

CRITICISM: The federal law has created massive resistance and anger that have not been good for species and habitat protection and may have set back the species protection movement in some areas far more than it has moved it forward.

TEXTBOOK: Author says that a major portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge may be opened to oil exploration under President Bush's national energy plan.

CRITICISM: The Bush energy proposal would allow exploration on only 2,000 acres plus land needed for roads to well sites. The text grossly exaggerates the consequences of oil exploration and production.

TEXTBOOK: Author states that more than 100 million Americans in urban areas are breathing unhealthy air - defined as air that violates federal ozone standards.

CRITICISM: This is erroneous because the air in some cities violates the standards only two or three times a year, and in some other cities only a few dozen days a year. On most days, the air in every city is within federal standards and is healthy.

TEXTBOOK: Native American cultures and other indigenous peoples have championed sustainable development, defined as a system that unifies social, economic, and environmental goals.

CRITICISM: One can hardly reason that these primitive societies set clearly definable goals or even practiced sustainability. It is more likely that these nomadic peoples espoused a frontier ethic that was made possible with very small populations living in large territories.

SOURCES: Texas Public Policy Foundation and Texas Education Agency

GRAPHIC: PHOTO(S): (Associated Press) State Board of Education member David Bradley of Beaumont said, "I really think the pendulum is swinging back to a more traditional, conservative value system in our schools." CHART(S): PERCEIVED TEXT ERRORS