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State board rejects science texts

by TERRENCE STUTZ on 11/9/01.

AUSTIN - State Board of Education members, in what critics called a new round of textbook censorship in Texas, voted Thursday to reject two controversial high school science books because of what they said were factual errors.

The vote was along partisan lines as all 10 Republicans voted to reject the environmental science textbooks, while all five Democrats on the board favored approval.

"This is nothing but censorship," said board member Mary Helen Berlanga of Corpus Christi. "The board has no authority to do this."

The action marked the first time since the state's textbook selection law was overhauled in 1995 that the board has voted to reject a textbook, state officials said. Under the law, a book can be turned down only for a few specific reasons, including the presence of factual errors.

When State Education Commissioner Jim Nelson and his staff recommended the books for approval on Thursday, they said all of the factual errors in the two science books had been or would be corrected before publication.

But several board members said errors were missed in the state's review. Board member Cynthia Thornton of Round Top, who made the original motion to reject the books, said there were "many, many, many errors," but did not specify any of them. Asked later by reporters to cite one or two specific errors, she declined to do so.

"I don't believe I'm censoring," she said.

Ms. Berlanga insisted that opposition to the books is based on political and religious objections to topics such as global warming and the need for stronger environmental protections.

"It is not un-American for these books to say that we are polluting the environment," she said.

Board members are expected to affirm their decision Friday.

The two textbooks and another environmental science book that was approved were the subject of much debate Thursday during the board of education's annual textbook hearing. Dozens of witnesses testified for hours about those and other science books up for adoption for the 2002-03 school year.

Science teachers, environmental groups, and a University of Texas ecology professor urged the board to adopt the environmental science books, saying they were well-researched and would encourage students to develop critical thinking skills.

But conservative groups and several citizens criticized the books as promoting "radical environmentalist" views of the world.

"This is just another attempt in the environmentalist agenda to destroy America," said Bill Ames of Richardson.

"You have the opportunity to counter the lies of radical environmentalists," he told the board, saying that such subjects as global warming and population growth would "frighten and indoctrinate our youth."

Peggy Venable of Texas Citizens for a Sound Economy, a conservative group, said the textbooks were "little more than radical environmentalist workbooks and are not based on sound science."

She said one of the books blames democracy, Christianity, and industrialization for causing an "environmental crisis" in the world. She argued that the books are littered with statements that are anti-free market and anti-American.

"Today's vote was a victory for Texas schoolchildren, and for patriotism, democracy, and free enterprise," she said.

Criticizing the board majority was Samantha Smoot of the Texas Freedom Network, a political watchdog group. She accused board members of "caving in to political pressure from a group of religious extremists with a blatantly anti-science agenda."

"The banned books address scientific evidence of global warming and harmful effects of carbon dioxide, factual information that makes a few religious political extremists uncomfortable," she said. "This was clearly a case of extremist political ideology outweighing science."

The two books were Environmental Science: How the World Works and Your Place in It, published by J.M. LeBel Enterprises, and Environmental Science: Creating a Sustainable Future, published by Jones and Bartlett Publishers. Both publishers defended the accuracy of their books.

A third book was adopted, Global Science: Energy, Resources, Environment. It is published by Kendall-Hunt Publishing Co. A fourth environmental science book that was under consideration was withdrawn by its publisher because it also faced strong opposition.

If the board vote is ratified on Friday, it will leave school districts with only one environmental science book that the state will pay for. They could choose one of the rejected books or another not on the state-approved list but would have to pay for the books with local revenue.

Several other science books were approved by the board on Thursday as part of a $ 184 million textbook purchase. Those books will be purchased beginning with the 2002-03 school year.

State board members lost much of their authority over textbooks in 1995 as the Legislature gave more discretion to local school boards in selecting books. Board members cannot control content and mainly review books for factual accuracy.

Texas is one of the largest textbook purchasers in the nation and is a crucial stop for publishers, who sell books adopted in Texas to dozens of other states.