Groups Voice Opinions on Social Studies Books

Textbook testimony heeded Woody Guthrie’s words on Wednesday, or at least his best-known phrase, as educators and parents debated the content of social studies books to be used in Texas classrooms for the next eight years.

In various ways, many of the 78 people who signed up to testify before the State Board of Education had one thing to say: “This land is my land.”

They felt strongly that the social studies texts should reflect just that.

Wednesday’s hearing was the third and final one before the board approves a list of recommended textbooks in November.

The stakes are high both for the state and the publishing industry. Texas is the second-largest consumer of textbooks nationwide, and it will spend an estimated $344.7 million on social studies books alone.

The speakers fell into three camps. One of those, a coalition of several conservative organizations, claimed that many of the more than 250 social studies books under consideration do not place sufficient emphasis on patriotism and the merits of a free-market society.

Their liberal counterparts argued that there is more to social studies than capitalism and patriotism. A third group said the accomplishments of minorities, particularly Hispanics, are not fairly represented in the texts.

“The textbook battle is a clash of belief systems,” said Richard Neavel, of Austin, who has five grandchildren in public schools. One of them is 11-year-old Elena Cortez Neavel.

“Elena will not be educated if she learns to be blindly patriotic,” he said.

Mentioning scandal-ridden companies such as Enron, he asked if “that is the free enterprise system that these organizations want Elena to admire?”

One of the organizations he referenced was Citizens for a Sound Economy. Its leaders have raised questions about the teaching of economics, for example, and whether the textbooks accurately tout the benefits of capitalism and the drawbacks of governmental intervention.

Another vocal critic of the social studies texts has been the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which spent nearly $100,000 and commissioned 16 scholars to study several of the textbooks.

They identified more than 500 errors. But their critics have questioned whether the errors represent actual mistakes or a difference of opinion.

Chris Patterson, director of education research for the San Antonio-based TPPF, came under fire Wednesday for the group’s failure to hire an African American or Hispanic scholar to review the books.

“You need diversity,” said board member Mary Helen Berlanga, D-Corpus Christi. “There are many Hispanic scholars who would have welcomed the opportunity to work with you and your evaluation.”

Many who spoke mentioned the Sept. 11 attacks, and Citizens for a Sound Economy gave the textbooks high marks overall for their accounts of the tragedy.

Samantha Smoot, executive director of the Texas Freedom Network, said the hearing was an exercise in democracy and therefore a suitable way to mark the anniversary. She also reiterated the group’s commitment to “ideology-free textbooks” and opposition to censorship.

Citizens for a Sound Economy director Peggy Venable gave the textbooks high marks overall for their accounts of the Sept. 11 tragedy, but criticized some books for not placing blame on Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network.

“We need to point out that we were attacked for our virtues, not our sins,” she said.

What publishers ultimately put in the Texas books is often used as a template for the books they sell nationwide, said Stephen Driesler, executive director of the Association of American Publishers.

The changes made here, he said, could end up in classrooms all over the country, or, as Guthrie would say, from “California to the New York Island, from the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters.”