Contact FreedomWorks

400 North Capitol Street, NW
Suite 765
Washington, DC 20001

  • Toll Free 1.888.564.6273
  • Local 202.783.3870


Why Volunteers Enlist In Textbook Wars

BY Jim Suydam
by Jim Suydam on 7/15/02.

Unemployed consultant Bill Peacock is a foot soldier in the seasonal clash of cultures that marks the state's adoption of textbooks.
Driven by what he saw as an anti-business, anti-Christian bias in the textbook publishing industry, Peacock is taking advantage of time between jobs to scour seven proposed economics textbooks on behalf of the group Citizens for a Sound Economy.
"Some of the things I've seen in textbooks have kind of made me stop and pause," Peacock said, referring to passages that he says speak kindly of socialism and communism. One example: a sentence in a social studies book for sixth-graders stating that in a socialist system, the government runs companies "for the good of the people, not profit."
Like Peacock, Austin attorney Phil Durst is also volunteering to hit the books children may end up reading. Durst, however, is motivated by the hundreds of people screening books for groups such as Citizens for a Sound Economy.
"The religious right continues to use its political clout to make textbooks more religious and conservative," said Durst, who will be reviewing books for the Texas Freedom Network.
Hundreds of other people, from a variety of backgrounds and political stripes, are doing the same in preparation for Wednesday, when the State Board of Education will hold its first public hearing on more than 150 proposed social studies and history books. Those books are approved every six years. In other years, the state considers other subjects. The board will approve the textbooks in November and will purchase 4,681,500 of them for the state's schoolchildren to use next school year.
The stakes are high for textbook publishers as well. The state will spend $344.7 million on the textbooks up for review, and because Texas is the nation's second-largest textbook consumer, what publishers produce for the Texas market is what children in many other states are likely to read.
Different causes
Among the concerned parties is a coalition of eight nonprofit groups, who have a crew of volunteer textbook screeners working for the only pay they get: little gems of perceived bias or incorrect information mined from hours of digging through textbooks hundreds of pages long.
The coalition, organized by Citizens for a Sound Economy, includes the Eagle Forum, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Gabler Group and the Reason Foundation. Also involved in the review is the Texas Federation of Republican Women. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, another pro-business, limited-government advocacy group, hired 16 scholars to review texts.
Peggy Venable, director of Texas Citizens for a Sound Economy, said reviewers are drawn by a common interest.
"Really, who's mostly involved are parents and taxpayers who want to make sure what we feel is important is in there," Venable said. "We've got some people who don't know where to start. We've got experts; some are experts in the Civil War -- or 'the war between the states,' as they like to call it -- some are experts in the Second Amendment. We've got teachers who will be teaching from these books."
Venable said reviewers such as Peacock aren't given marching orders, but they are given extensive readings on how to spot bias and review U.S. history material, among other things.
About 100 volunteers from the Texas Freedom Network, a group that seeks to maintain a separation of church and state, are also screening textbooks -- with the goal of simply being prepared to object to changes suggested by the other groups.
"For too many years now, a small but vocal group of people has controlled the textbook adoption process in Texas," said Samantha
Publishers prepare
All sides in the Texas textbook battle claim popular support. All sides claim the moral high ground.
And publishers must listen to everyone involved as they work to get their draft books approved, said Wendy Spiegel, a spokeswoman for Pearson Prentice Hall.
"They all deserve to be heard," she said. "Texas requires it." For the textbook publishing industry, this is a dicey time of the year, said Joe Bill Watkins, an Austin lawyer who represents the American Association of Publishers.
About 80 percent of the work on a textbook is done before a publisher can go before the state board to try to make the sale. Unsuccessfully negotiating the ideological minefield that is the state's textbook adoption process can be costly, he said.
"Most of these publishers have been in the business for decades. They are businesspeople, not ideologues," he said. "They realize that they cannot meet every viewpoint, but they try to present materials that cover what lawmakers say Texas schoolchildren should learn, and they try to present materials that are factually accurate and balanced."
In 1995, legislators passed a law attempting to hobble the social activists who have made the adoption of Texas textbooks a priority in their annual efforts. The law states that the board could reject books only if the books fail to cover the material state lawmakers say must be taught or if the books have physical defects or factual inaccuracies.
That law hasn't dampened anyone's enthusiasm, however.
Already, publishers have shown that they are listening. Some have sent early copies of their texts to groups such as Citizens for a Sound Economy, soliciting their views and making changes. And Pearson Prentice Hall has pulled one book from consideration.
"Out of Many," an advanced-placement U.S. history text that Pearson Prentice Hall sells to many colleges, was pulled after Grace Shore, chairwoman of the State Board of Education, noticed a passage about rampant prostitution in Wild West towns. Shore said she felt the mention of prostitution wasn't appropriate for juniors in high school.
Most problems that have been brought forward so far are much less sexy, but no less contentious.
In one book that Peacock reviewed, the author explains socialism to 12-year-olds:
"In a socialist system, the government owns most of the basic industries. It runs them for the good of the people, not profit," according to Pearson Prentice Hall's sixth-grade social studies offering, "World Explorer: People, Places and Cultures."
Embedded in these two sentences are two reasons Peacock is spending his free time reading textbooks when he and his wife don't yet have any children. Peacock, who holds an MBA but considers economics a hobby, says the phrasing implies that for-profit industries cannot be run for the good of the people.
The statement also assumes that a socialist government can actually use property for the good of the people, "when, in fact, that this is what is at the heart of the debate over socialism," he said.
That example also points to the larger issue that makes this year's textbook battle one of the most contentious ever, according to publishing insiders: Although members of the State Board of Education can give a thumbs down only because of factual or manufacturing errors, there are often no right or wrong answers in social studies and history.