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MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.
It's textbook time in Texas. The state has begun its highly politicized process of selecting public school books. Texas, California and Florida buy more textbooks than any other states, and therefore have a big influence on the books used by students nationwide.
For the past 30 years, social conservatives have had an increasing influence, prompting critics to charge that publishers are self-censoring. NPR's John Burnett reports.
JOHN BURNETT reporting:
The cover of a proposed high school economics textbook under consideration by the Texas State Board of Education bears the photograph of the famous pediment above the entrance to the New York Stock Exchange. But in the marble tableau, two of the male sculptures, agriculture and science to be exact, have loincloths drawn over their usually exposed genitalia. The publisher, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, says it doctored the picture because the nudity was, quote, "inappropriate." But veteran observers of textbook showdowns in Texas say this is the latest example of how far publishers will go to get a book past the easily shocked eyes of conservative textbook reviewers.
The censored economics book was one of 150 stacked in the corner of a hearing room in Austin last week. The State Board of Education seeks public comment on new textbooks before it selects a pool of books to pass along to the state's 1,100 individual school districts.
Unidentified Speaker: I think we're about ready to begin. Let me go over a couple of ground rules for the participants.
BURNETT: Battles over textbook content are legendary in Texas, but the stakes are even higher this year. The state is expected to spend a third of a billion dollars on new school books next year, and the subject is social studies, which, unlike algebra or Latin, is ripe for interpretation.
Ms. CHRIS PATTERSON (Director of Education Research, Texas Public Policy Foundation): There really is a politically correct body of history, of social studies, that you find in every single textbook.
BRAND: Chris Patterson is director of education research for a conservative think tank in San Antonio called the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
Ms. PATTERSON: There's always a noble native, there's always a bad white European. And it's always the European who created slavery.
BRAND: To get an idea of how organized the right is, this year, Patterson's group will spend at least $100,000 for a team of 16 teachers and academics to comb through the textbooks. So far, their comments fill 1,700 pages. And that's just one group. Eight other conservative organizations, such as the Eagle Forum and Citizens for a Sound Economy, have formed a coalition to vet the books.
At the hearing, volunteer editors for these groups stepped up to the mike all day to pound the publishers.
Unidentified Woman #1: On page 56, under the heading 'Christianity and the Teachings of Jesus,' the Christian belief in the resurrection of Christ is not mentioned as a core tenet of Christianity.
Unidentified Woman #2: Another problem that I found with The Western Experience by Glencoe, McGraw-Hill, is they talk about Karl Marx as the most influential social and political thinker in the history of man.
Unidentified Woman #3: We are a republic, founded on biblical principles.
Unidentified Man: And there's even a picture of Osama bin Laden in the Glencoe text. The Koran and all of its teaching is violent, it's expansionistic and I think it's a crime and a shame to mislead our students.
BURNETT: Much of what the self-appointed textbook editors do is catch errors of fact. Two examples this year: That Thomas Jefferson wrote the US Constitution--it was actually a collaborative effort--and that John Marshall was the first chief justice of the US Supreme Court. It was John Jay. But the reviewers also look for perceived ideological bias, which they contend is written into the textbooks. Two recent examples: Last year, the Education Board rejected an environmental science textbook on the urging of conservative groups who contended the book exaggerated the problems of global warming. They called the book 'anti-free enterprise' and 'anti-Christian.' And this year, a publisher has already withdrawn a US history book, in part because the board chairwoman, Grace Shore, a Republican, objected to the statement that 'In the late 19th century, there were perhaps 50,000 prostitutes west of the Mississippi.'
Ms. GRACE SHORE: And I don't think that was something that needed to be emphasized so much, because you do have to pick and choose what goes in a book.
BURNETT: The textbook review movement did not spring up overnight. It grew out of the work of a couple in Longview, Texas, Mel and Norma Gabler. After tussling with textbook publishers for 40 years, they've learned to laugh off their critics.
Ms. NORMA GABLER: I don't know what a right-wing extremist is. I haven't figured that out.
Mr. MEL GABLER: Well, every one of our Founding Fathers, almost without exception, would be considered a right-wing extremist today.
BURNETT: Mel is a former oil company work who's 87 years old. His 79-year-old wife Norma was a housewife before she taught herself to be a textbook activist. They live in a modest house filled with seashells collected from around the world and lots of textbooks. They're devout Southern Baptists, who believe their faith has called them to battle the dark forces and sloppy editors that corrupt the books read by Texas schoolchildren.
Mr. GABLER: Nearly everything where they give problems, the solution is not individuals or free enterprise. The solution is almost always big government. In other words, government becomes god in people's mind, that are pretty well indoctrinated with socialism.
BURNETT: But can history be truly objective, divorced from the values of its author? Does truth belong to one political ideology or the other? And does truth change from state to state? This is Penny Langford, speaking for Republican Texas Congressman Ron Paul.
Ms. PENNY LANGFORD (Spokeswoman for Ron Paul): I heard just a few minutes ago that maybe we were replacing liberal bias with conservative bias. This is a conservative state. And is it conservative or is it truth?
BURNETT: In 1995, concerned by how a few conservative groups dominated the Education Board, the Texas Senate, including moderate Republicans, passed a law restricting the power of the board over textbook content. But little has changed since then. In fact, conservative proofreaders have begun communicating their concerns directly to publishers outside the public hearing process. Samantha Smoot is director of the Texas Freedom Network, a liberal watchdog group in Austin.
Ms. SAMANTHA SMOOT (Director, Texas Freedom Network): The issue that goes beyond this year's approvals is really about self-censorship. It's about the religious right in Texas becoming so powerful in their threats to have books banned at the State Board of Education that the publishers are willing to accept their changes and their censorship before the books are ever presented in this public forum.
BURNETT: As the longest-serving member on the State Education Board, Mary Helen Berlanga says for 19 years she has watched as publishers increasingly acquiesce to conservative critics. Berlanga is one of five Democrats on the 15-member elected board dominated by Republicans.
Ms. MARY HELEN BERLANGA (Texas State Education Board): And quite frankly, I don't blame publishers. They're going to do whatever it takes to get their books adopted. Who do you have to make happy? That's who I'm going to make happy. But in the process, we are destroying the selection process...
BURNETT: Publishing company officials at the hearing refused to comment for this report. Their local lobbyist, Joe Bill Watkins, said while it's true that publishers would like to sell the Texas editions in as many states as possible, publishers are not willing to make any change just to please Texas conservatives.
Mr. JOE BILL WATKINS (Publishing Company Lobbyist): But do they do anything? No. There have been publishers who have said no and walked away from the table before. But you can imagine that is something a publisher does reluctantly because they have basically made 80 percent to 90 percent of their entire investment by this point in time.
BURNETT: The chairwoman of the State Education Board, Grace Shore, rejects the notion that the textbook selection process in Texas has become the captive of one interest group.
Ms. SHORE: I'm proud of our system. I think it works. And I think it would be censorship if we did not have this process. Our process brings everything out in the open.
BURNETT: Perhaps, board members suggest with a smile, one group is using democracy better than the other. Mainstream citizens have the right to speak out, too. For instance, last week, a large number of Latinos criticized the Texas history books for omitting important contributions of Hispanic Texans. 'Don't get mad,' said one board member. 'Get organized.' John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.
BRAND: It's 11 minutes before the hour.