We saw signs at today’s State Board of Education meeting that the pendulum might finally be swinging back toward the center on the body that decides what 5 million students learn in Texas public schools. If borne out in coming months, those signs are encouraging for the adoption of science and social studies textbooks over the next two years. But we also saw a red flag that could signal another “culture war” battle ahead.
Perhaps the clearest sign that the board’s creationist faction is weaker after the 2010 and 2012 elections is that board members rejected the nomination of Ken “Dog-Cat” Mercer, R-San Antonio, as vice chair. Mercer got just six of the board’s 15 votes. The board then elected Thomas Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, as vice chair. Ratliff defeated arch-creationist Don McLeroy in the 2010 Republican primary and has emerged as a leader of the board’s moderates. We’ve already seen one anguished email blasted out on the Intertubes by a religious-right activist upset over Mercer’s defeat. (Board members elected Democrat Mavis Knight of Dallas as secretary, giving moderates a 2-1 edge on the executive committee.)
In addition, board members voted unanimously to require that amendments to proposed curriculum standards be filed, in most cases, by 5 p.m. the day before the board takes a final vote on those standards. Efforts to pass a similar requirement failed twice in the past two years. This new rule could limit a tactic some board members have used in the past to undermine the work of curriculum writing teams made up of teachers and scholars. During highly controversial debates over curriculum standards in recent years — especially on language arts, science and social studies — board members have offered amendments up to just minutes before the final vote. Board colleagues had no time to vet those last-minute amendments with teachers, scholars and other experts. Not surprisingly, those amendments have caused much mischief, inserting attacks on evolution and promoting other personal and political views in standards that will be in place for a generation of Texas students.
The new rule won’t necessarily stop the board from adopting such nonsense in future debates over curriculum standards. But outside scholars and other experts will at least have the opportunity to advise board members before a vote is taken. That’s a step in the right direction.
We noted at least one red flag today that shows the state board is still sensitive to right-wing scare fantasies that slither out of the fever swamps. A number of board members expressed concerns about CSCOPE, the curriculum management tool that right-wing activists have been screaming about for months. Even the fringe-right website WorldNetDaily (a breeding ground for “birther” and other absurd Obama conspiracies) has helped stir the anti-CSCOPE pot.
Anti-CSCOPE activists claim the program, which was developed through a collaboration of state Education Service Centers, is a secretive curriculum filled with “humanistic,” Marxist and pro-Islamic propaganda. Many examples they provide — when they bother to offer specific examples — have appeared to us as bizarre, out-of-context distortions that twist the meaning and thrust of CSCOPE lessons. A State Board of Education committee heard testimony from the public about CSCOPE last November, with many board members doing a pretty good job of separating legitimate concerns (such as transparency) from the fever-swamp fantasies. But the far right’s attacks on CSCOPE popped up again at today’s state board meeting, with several members noting concerns they have heard from constituents. This manufactured controversy is also being fueled by a public hearing scheduled by the Texas Senate Education Committee on Thursday. We hope the newly seated state board members won’t allow themselves to become engulfed in yet another divisive and unnecessary “culture war” battle. But it’s clear that some activists are determined to have one.