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State braces for battle over textbooks

BY Jim Suydam
by Jim Suydam on 3/21/02.

The debate to determine what social studies and history texts Texas schoolchildren will read over the next six years will begin in earnest Friday, as the State Board of Education sets the schedule for public input.

Already advocates are lining up on opposing sides to influence the selection, and the rhetoric has grown heated.

In November, the board is set to vote on which of more than 200 texts submitted by publishers should be placed on a list from which school districts may choose.

Texas, which will buy $570 million worth of textbooks next year, is one of the largest textbook markets in the nation -- one that often sets the agenda for classroom texts nationwide. The competition to influence which books make it to that list -- and what they will say -- puts Texas on the cutting edge of a national cultural conflict between groups on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum.

"A publisher can't make 50 different versions of a book to suit each market," said Austin attorney Joe Bill Watkins, who represents the American Association of Publishers. "Texas is a very, very important state. Publishers often will sell the Texas edition across the country."

Among the points of debate the last time the state reviewed history and social studies texts in 1995 and 1996 were:

* minority representation in history texts;

* George Washington's religious beliefs;

* and the question of whether or not to include the birth of Jesus Christ in historical time lines.

The selection of textbooks is among the board's most public tasks, but it has been limited in recent years. Lawmakers in 1995 voted to strip the board of the authority to regulate textbook content. The board may reject texts only if they contain factual errors, are not properly bound or do not contain at least 50 percent of the state's education curriculum.

Already, advocacy groups such as Citizens for a Sound Economy have worked with publishers, reviewing drafts of the proposed texts before they become available to the public. Citizens for a Sound Economy in the past has criticized textbooks for having what members call anti-Christian and anti-capitalist themes.

In response to this organized effort, education Board Member Mary Helen Berlanga, D-Corpus Christi, called a press conference last week to warn that "groups of extremists are organized in an attempt to censor our textbooks by removing material that is unacceptable to them."

Another board member, Cynthia Thornton, R-Round Top, defended such review by citizen groups as a necessary part of the whole debate.

"I'm very much for constituents having their day in court," she said.

In this context, the vote by the 15-member board to consider a seemingly minor schedule change is likely to become the topic of heated exchange.

The idea, proposed by Republican board Chairwoman Grace Shore and supported by state Education Commissioner Jim Nelson, would shorten the time allowed for public comment on the textbooks but increase the time allowed for the board to listen to the response to those comments from publishers and Texas Education Agency staff.

The proposed changes to be considered Friday would move the deadline for comments on the proposed textbooks to July 5 from Aug. 21. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, which has an established history of playing a large role in the state's selection of textbooks, blasted the proposed changes.

"This is an outrageous move to muzzle parents, teachers and taxpayers who want to make sure textbooks are accurate and academically sound," Chris Patterson, director of education research at the foundation, said in a statement.

Shore defended the proposed schedule change. She said allowing public comment up until the date of adoption last year left board members voting on texts with alleged errors on which they had no specific information.

"I'm not trying to shut the public out. I'm just trying to be fair to everyone," Shore said. The changes would allow the board members to better work with staff at the education agency and with publishers to correct errors before the board's final vote on the books in November, she said.

The board is likely to hear plenty of comment.

Ideological opposites on the board are working with like-minded organizations to influence those public comments. Berlanga said she is working with the League of United Latin American Citizens and the American GI Forum to encourage public input on the proposed textbooks.

And groups such as the Texas Eagle Forum, the Texas Public Policy Foundation and Citizens for a Sound Economy have already been working with publishers.

Last fall, the fight over evolution, environmental issues and capitalism drove the discussion about errors. Observers say there could be similar debate this year.

"There is so much that is subjective in social studies and history books," said Will Davis, an Austin attorney and former State Board of Education member. "There's going to be a great deal of argument, a great deal of contention among the various factions."

Berlanga said that without widespread public interest in the textbooks, a narrow but organized conservative voice could dominate the discussion.

"I want the public to be aware that these books are out there and that every citizen has the right to read them and make comments," she said.

Two copies of each proposed textbook will be available for review April 26 at each of the state's Education Service Centers.

Peggy Venable, state director of Citizens for a Sound Economy, said her group wants more time and more books at each center for volunteers to review. The group would like to delay the adoption of any books until January, allowing more time for debate. That would also allow less time for school district officials to select their texts for the next year.

Citizens for a Sound Economy held a meeting Wednesday to organize hundreds of volunteers and plan a strategy for the upcoming debate. The Texas Freedom Network, which has in the past been on the opposite end of the textbook debate from Citizens for a Sound Economy, is also working for more input. The Texas Freedom Network monitors the role of religion in government.

"We want to work to get a broad perspective in there," said spokeswoman Ashley McIlvain. "We were a little surprised with what happened last fall."; 445-3635