How Texas Inflicts Bad Textbooks on Us
By GAIL COLLINS - THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS
Added: Thu, 31 May 2012 23:41:08 UTC
No matter where you live, if your children go to public schools, the textbooks they use were very possibly written under Texas influence. If they graduated with a reflexive suspicion of the concept of separation of church and state and an unexpected interest in the contributions of the National Rifle Association to American history, you know who to blame.
When it comes to meddling with school textbooks, Texas is both similar to other states and totally different. It’s hardly the only one that likes to fiddle around with the material its kids study in class. The difference is due to size—4.8 million textbook-reading schoolchildren as of 2011—and the peculiarities of its system of government, in which the State Board of Education is selected in elections that are practically devoid of voters, and wealthy donors can chip in unlimited amounts of money to help their favorites win.
Those favorites are not shrinking violets. In 2009, the nation watched in awe as the state board worked on approving a new science curriculum under the leadership of a chair who believed that “evolution is hooey.” In 2010, the subject was social studies and the teachers tasked with drawing up course guidelines were supposed to work in consultation with “experts” added on by the board, one of whom believed that the income tax was contrary to the word of God in the scriptures.
Ever since the 1960s, the selection of schoolbooks in Texas has been a target for the religious right, which worried that schoolchildren were being indoctrinated in godless secularism, and political conservatives who felt that their kids were being given way too much propaganda about the positive aspects of the federal government. Mel Gabler, an oil company clerk, and his wife, Norma, who began their textbook crusade at their kitchen table, were the leaders of the first wave. They brought their supporters to State Board of Education meetings, unrolling their “scroll of shame,” which listed objections they had to the content of the current reading material. At times, the scroll was fifty-four feet long. Products of the Texas school system have the Gablers to thank for the fact that at one point the New Deal was axed from the timeline of significant events in American history.
The Texas State Board of Education, which approves textbooks, curriculum standards, and supplemental materials for the public schools, has fifteen members from fifteen districts whose boundaries don’t conform to congressional districts, or really anything whatsoever. They run in staggered elections that are frequently held in off years, when always-low Texas turnout is particularly abysmal. The advantage tends to go to candidates with passionate, if narrow, bands of supporters, particularly if those bands have rich backers. All of which—plus a natural supply of political eccentrics—helps explain how Texas once had a board member who believed that public schools are the tool of the devil.
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