A battle over books in Texas

AUSTIN, TEXAS – In a couple of days, the Texas State Board of Education, at the end of its annual review, will decide whether to accept or reject proposed textbooks.

A textbook review may sound fairly tame, but in the Lone Star State it can stir serious controversy, as looks to be the case this year.

Last week the Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, based in Dallas, filed a lawsuit against the Texas board, charging it with violating First Amendment rights when it rejected an environmental science textbook for use in state high schools.

The book, TLPJ charges, was academically sound but was rejected because the board judged it to be out of line with both Christian and free enterprise principles – criteria the legal group feels are political and shouldn’t be applied to textbooks.

It’s a case of conservative special-interest groups wielding inappropriate power over academic interests, critics charge, a particularly serious concern in Texas, where texts there have the potential to impact classrooms far beyond the state’s borders.

With 4.1 million public schoolchildren, Texas is the second-largest textbook buyer in the country, trailing only California. Because Texas and California are such lucrative markets, textbook manufacturers tend to tailor their products to the requirements of these two states, making any changes they may require.

Because other states represent smaller markets, most publishers won’t publish special editions just for them, and they often end up with the books approved by the two giants.

Some who monitor the process in Texas worry that the books approved there too often sacrifice academic quality to the concerns of watchdog groups with conservative agendas.

“Unlike most states, Texas has this centralized approval process, so a relatively small amount of pressure from the right wing can yield enormous consequences,” says Samantha Smoot, president of the Texas Freedom Network (TFN), a liberal watchdog group based in Austin.

The current dispute over the science text is not the first time Texans have battled over questions of censorship connected with the review process.

At its website, www.tfn.org, the TFN gives examples of cases where it believes ideology affected textbook decisions, such as the 2002 rejection of a history text with positive references to Islam and the environmental-science book in the current lawsuit, which some see as anti-free enterprise because it teaches about global warming.

Influence of this kind worries those who think such an approach confuses ideological standards with academic ones. But for some of the more conservative parent groups, ideology is exactly what they’re trying to keep out of textbooks.

“Textbooks by and large are written by college professors,” says Peggy Venable, state director for Citizens for a Sound Economy Foundation. “Many of us feel professors are more liberal than many parents are. We need to make sure information being taught is something parents feel comfortable with.”

Ms. Venable’s group also worries that accuracy in textbooks may be sacrificed to liberal goals such as political correctness.

Textbookmakers, they argue, sometimes rewrite history by overplaying the accomplishments of woman and racial minorities and editing out what they believe to be more important material.

“White males are often underrepresented,” says Venable. “I see publishers as trying to meet requirements by putting women and minorities in [and] ignoring significant events.”

In 1995 the Texas legislature passed a law stating that the state board of education may reject books only on the basis of factual errors and not due to disputes over ideology.

But at the same time, state law requires the board to approve books that promote democracy, patriotism, and the free-enterprise system – leaving the door open to disagreements of a more subjective nature.

In Texas, textbooks are updated in waves. Each year, different topics come up for revision. Under consideration this year are family studies, career studies, and biology. The subject of biology is usually the trigger for particularly fierce controversy.

While some groups accept evolution as correct science that should be taught to biology students, others argue that it is only a theory and thus should either be presented differently, or alongside other “scientific theories” including that of Intelligent Design, the belief in an intelligent creator.

Some retort that ID is not science at all, but religion dressed up “in a lab coat.”

Files available at the Texas Education Association Webpage for the textbook-review process feature more than 1,000 pages of commentary from public hearings, much on this topic. Whichever side prevails, however, in any of the debates over textbooks, no Texas school is required to buy the books approved by the board of education. But the majority do.

Books deemed conforming – meeting the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) requirements – are appealing to in-state schools because they can use state funds to buy them.

But even in schools that buy the books, there are always some teachers who either ignore or supplement them.

Alex Hendrex, a history teacher for 10 years at Kealing Junior High School in Austin, long avoided textbooks.

He objected to certain characterizations of history he regarded as inaccurate.

For example, he says, when it comes to New World explorers, “the emphasis in [the state-approved history] textbook is the wonderful accomplishments of Columbus,” with just a small sidebar mentioning enslavement of the natives.

Mr. Hendrex has recently begun using the state-approved text, but only in conjunction with other assigned reading. Hendrex says his goal isn’t to sway the students one way or the other, but to have them compare accounts. He’d like to see them think critically, draw their own conclusions, and learn to question sources.

Hendrex’s colleague, English teacher Kristen Scott, collaborates with fellow teacher Sarah Waggoner to develop curriculum not focused on textbooks.

But she still relies on textbooks to teach basics such as grammar.

“Some kids find textbooks comforting – they’re familiar,” she says. “I use them the same way I use any other resource – I don’t depend solely on them.”

• Staff writer Kris Axtman contributed to this story.