Dispatches from the Creation Wars

A Pyrrhic Victory in Texas?

My friends at the Texas Freedom Network are celebrating the passage of a bill in Texas that they say will reduce the influence of the State Board of Education on textbook purchases:

The new law establishes an “instructional materials allotment” for each school district. Districts can use their allotments to continue buying state-approved textbooks as well as electronic and “open source” materials. And they will be able to use those funds to purchase computers and other technology students need to access instructional content.

But the law also allows school districts to do use state dollars to purchase textbooks and other instructional materials for core courses like history and science regardless of whether the state board has approved those materials. This provision could represent a sea change in how decisions are made regarding what Texas students learn in public schools.

They say this is a good thing:

While school districts can continue buying materials that go through the state board’s review and adoption process, under the new law, they will no longer be held hostage to the textbook decisions of state board politicians. This is good news for local educators and parents, who have grown increasingly alarmed at the politics that plague the state board’s textbook adoptions. Board members have regularly ignored input from teachers and scholars and used their power to censor and revise new textbooks.

That’s one big reason why today our public schools — in a state with the nation’s third-highest rate of teen births — use health textbooks that don’t include information about contraception. And it’s why textbook adoptions have become unnecessary and embarrassing battles over what students should learn about topics such as evolutionary science, climate change and even the U.S. Constitution. In short, what Texas students learn in their classrooms too often reflects the personal beliefs of state board politicians rather than cutting-edge, consensus scholarship.

Now, however, if local educators are concerned that politicians on the board have corrupted textbook options, they will have the flexibility to choose other instructional material. They might choose, for example, to conduct their own evaluations or partner with other school districts and even education service centers to do so.

This strikes me as naive at best. The State Board of Education in Texas is terrible but I’d bet a large amount of money that the local school boards are even worse. In the late 80s, the Christian Coalition launched a campaign to get their people elected to school boards and it worked, to the tune of more than 15,000 of them elected. In 2007, Rick Scarborough’s group Vision America renewed that project.

Local school boards tend to be dominated by Christian fundamentalists, particularly in states like Texas. All this new law does is create hundreds of potential fires to put out all the time rather than one big one every few years at the state level. It also makes it much less likely that anyone will ever find out what kind of creationism and historical revisionism is being taught to students in that state; rather than having those changes make headlines across the state, now we’ll only find out about it at the local level if someone complains — and that’s not easy to do anywhere, especially Texas.