In an op-ed column that has run in various newspapers (including in Houston and Austin), Texas Freedom Network President Kathy Miller explains how the recently ended legislative session demonstrates that the “culture wars” are still a divisive and disruptive influence in Texas politics. We are to publishing the op-ed for TFN Insider readers here.
Legislative Session Shows ‘Culture Wars’ Still Thrive in Texas
National elections last November seemed to signal that voters are exhausted by relentless battles over divisive social issues. But the recently ended legislative session showed that the culture wars still thrive in Texas.
Whether the Legislature would ban public funding for embryonic stem cell research, for example, was a key battle in debates over the state budget. In addition, the governor and abortion opponents pushed for “Choose Life” license plates for cars.
But deep divisions over the State Board of Education and sex education truly illuminated the staying power of the culture wars in our state’s political life.
Over the past two years, the SBOE has lurched from one embarrassing controversy to another. On matters like language arts standards, public school Bible classes and even the adoption of mathematics textbooks, the board had become a dysfunctional mess.
The recent controversy over science was especially messy. Some of the state’s most respected scientists – including Nobel laureates – were practically reduced to begging board creationists not to undermine instruction on evolution.
So a bipartisan group of legislators offered more than a dozen bills to shield education from politics. Key bills would have removed or limited the board’s authority over setting curriculum standards and adopting textbooks.
It was clear that many lawmakers – Republicans and Democrats – understood that the SBOE had become an obstacle to ensuring that Texas schoolchildren get a sound education.
But social conservatives pleased with a state board that embraces the culture wars put intense pressure on lawmakers. Support for SBOE reform bills gradually faded among Republicans as all legislation dealing with the board had to pass a socially conservative litmus test. For example, a day after the House gave preliminary approval to a bill simply putting the board under periodic review by the Sunset Advisory Commission, the House reversed course and rejected it. Republican lawmakers told reporters that opposing the bill became a test of party loyalty – and all of them wanted to avoid the wrath of social conservatives in GOP primaries.
Lawmakers also sought to deal with the failure of sex education in Texas public schools. The rising rate of teen births in Texas is one of the nation’s highest. Moreover, the state spends over $1 billion annually on teen pregnancies. Yet more than 9 in 10 school districts teach no medically accurate information about pregnancy and disease prevention except abstinence-only-until-marriage. A two-year study showed that those abstinence-only programs were filled with factual errors, dated gender stereotypes and wildly exaggerated failure rates for contraception and disease prevention methods.
Lawmakers proposed solutions based on common sense. One required school districts that offer sex education to teach students about contraception and preventing sexually transmitted diseases. Another required that anything taught in sex education classes be medically accurate according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and associations like the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Opponents said the bills were backed by abortion providers who simply wanted to “censor” information in classrooms and promote “recreational and gay sex” – outrageous claims for measures simply calling for medical accuracy in health classes.
Opportunities for rational discussion faded quickly. So when House members were asked to vote on requiring medically accurate information in sex education classes, House opponents killed the measure with a parliamentary move so they wouldn’t even have to discuss it on the floor.
As a result, little has changed in Texas at the end of a long legislative session. Statistics show that a Texas teen still gets pregnant every 10 minutes. Students are still being told that condoms and other forms of contraception and disease prevention are virtually useless. And State Board of Education members have already promised that the revision of social studies standards will be even more controversial than the science revision. But the culture warriors are happy.
The culture wars may be fading across the rest of the country. But they’re still causing casualties in Texas.
Kathy Miller is president of the Texas Freedom Network, a public education and religious liberties watchdog group based in Austin.