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School Textbook Debate: Just the Facts or Rewriting History

BY Terrence Stotz
by Terrence Stotz on 7/17/02.

AUSTIN - Their line-by-line review is done, and textbook critics say they want these "facts" added to proposed history books for Texas students:
*Indian tribes were as much to blame as fur traders and tourists for wiping out the great buffalo herds of the Plains by shooting the animals for sport.
*John and Robert Kennedy did very little to help the cause of civil rights in the early 1960s - and actually took actions that undermined the movement.
*All prayer in public schools was not really banned by the U.S. Supreme Court decades ago. Students still can pray in school.
Those and hundreds of other changes should be made to new social studies books that will be used in Texas schools over the next six years, say conservative textbook reviewers who will press their arguments at a public hearing Wednesday.
Their opponents are marshaling forces as well, saying groups seeking the revisions are trying to inject political biases into the books by misusing a state law that requires all textbooks be "free from factual errors."
"These are groups that are determined to control what Texas kids are taught, based on their own personal beliefs and political ideology," said Samantha Smoot of the Texas Freedom Network, an organization that frequently squares off with social conservatives on textbooks and other education issues.
Wednesday, the State Board of Education - made up of 10 Republicans and five Democrats - will hold the first of three public hearings this year on textbooks, and the proceedings are drawing national interest.
That's because textbook decisions in Texas reverberate across the country.
Among the states, only California buys more textbooks, and publishers whose books are adopted in the Lone Star State market them in dozens of other states.
Lots of money is on the line. Texas alone is scheduled to spend nearly $ 345 million on social studies and other textbooks that will be adopted this fall and used in classrooms beginning in the fall of 2003.
Ms. Smoot's group is leading a statewide campaign to urge the education board to leave the new textbooks alone - except for correcting what members call real factual errors - when they come up for final adoption in November.
That would be a mistake, say conservative groups such as Texas Citizens for a Sound Economy, which has called on its members and other residents to pore over the new books, seek out mistakes and take their findings to the state board.
"I think there has been a general frustration with the liberal academia who are writing our textbooks," said Peggy Venable of Texas Citizens for a Sound Economy. "This is one way for people to get involved and also express their frustration."
Textbook battles were commonplace in Texas through the 1980s and early '90s when special-interest groups and board of education members argued over evolution, sex education and other politically sensitive subjects.
But the Legislature stepped in and sharply limited the board's authority over textbooks in 1995, shifting more responsibility to local school boards.
"I never believed that all the wisdom on textbook selection was embodied in these 15 people [on the State Board of Education]," said acting Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, a Republican who as a senator in 1995 wrote the massive school reform bill that stripped much of the board's power over textbooks.
Then last fall, members of the board's GOP majority took a step to restore some of their authority by rejecting an environmental science book targeted by social conservatives. The book, given good marks by a review panel of professors at Texas A&M University, was criticized over passages that praise the Endangered Species Act and warn about global warming.
History repeats
This year, board members scheduled extra hearings, and with scores of textbook critics and supporters ready to testify - 70 have already signed up for Wednesday's hearing - it seems like old times have returned.
State board members such as Republican David Bradley of Beaumont contend that the panel has always had broad authority over textbooks despite the 1995 law, which says the board can reject textbooks only for factual inaccuracies, not meeting physical specifications or not covering the required curriculum in a subject.
"We're winning the battle," Mr. Bradley said recently, referring to those who want to see the board take a more active role in reviewing textbooks.
Mr. Ratliff, who has been at odds with Mr. Bradley on the issue, said he is increasingly concerned about misuse of the law to "police" textbooks for political correctness.
"The language in the law was not intended to allow these groups to police opinions," he said. "The law refers to factual errors - and that is meant in the true sense of the word. For example, if a book says the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1775 instead of 1776, that needs to be corrected."
Perhaps the most ambitious review of this year's textbooks was performed by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a group founded by San Antonio millionaire businessman James Leininger, a big GOP contributor and supporter of social conservatives on the state board.
The foundation spent nearly $ 100,000 to hire 16 textbook reviewers - mainly college professors and classroom teachers - who examined 28 social studies books up for adoption.
They say they discovered 533 factual errors in the books and also cited the publishers for hundreds more omissions - facts that the reviewers say should have been included.
"Finding factual errors was a secondary mission of the project," said Michael Quinn Sullivan, a foundation spokesman. "Our primary mission was to find what the textbooks are lacking, what they are missing."
Clinton vs. Nixon
The group's review of one high school history book accused the publisher of showing favoritism to Democrat Bill Clinton when comparing his presidential impeachment proceedings with those of Republican Richard Nixon.
The foundation did not give high marks to any of the proposed social studies books, but did indicate it will not seek to have any of the books rejected.
"We have not, and will not, ask for content to be removed. Rather, we want content added to ensure that every topic is treated fairly and presented accurately," said Chris Patterson, director of education research for the group.
Opponents said the group's suggestions, such as those dealing with the Indians and buffalo and the Kennedy brothers, are off base.
The Texas Freedom Network also is having its members, including parents and teachers, review the textbooks so they can answer the criticism of the conservative groups.
One of those is Phil Durst, an Austin laywer who said he is concerned that the critics are using their political clout to censor viewpoints they disagree with.
"My children assure me that their textbooks can be made long and boring enough without the religious right's dogma on evolution, gender roles and their view of Christianity," Mr. Durst said.
Publishers are sensitive to the criticism, but they contend that the books up for adoption this year have a high level of accuracy, particularly when one considers how much information they include.
"We are always willing to correct any errors that are discovered," said Joe Bill Watkins of the Association of American Publishers. "But sometimes there is a difference of opinion about what constitutes an error."