Was Texas State Board of Education Chair Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, trying to influence the work of the panels reviewing proposed new high school biology textbooks last week? Cargill, a creationist who has insisted that textbooks should teach “another side” when discussing evolution, met with the panels last Wednesday (July 31). We now know that those panels included at least four creationists invited to participate in the review. When a fellow state board member raised her own concerns about the independence of the panels at a meeting last Thursday, Cargill replied that she had simply been thanking the reviewers and answering their questions. She also invited anyone with concerns to contact her. So we did.
Unfortunately, Cargill’s responses to our emails weren’t particularly helpful. She simply told us that the meetings of the review panels were open to the public. That’s irrelevant in this case. Observers are required to sit so far from the panels that it’s impossible to hear discussions among the reviewers or what Cargill told them. Cargill ignored our questions about whether she was trying to influence the work of the panels.
Following is TFN President Kathy Miller’s email exchange with Cargill. Our first email went to Cargill on Friday, August 1:
Dear Ms. Cargill,
During today’s State Board of Education workshop, you questioned the accuracy of information we reported on our blog regarding your presence on Wednesday during the meeting of the biology review teams at the Austin Airport Hilton. I’m following up with your invitation at today’s meeting to address our concerns directly to you. Thank you very much for making that offer. I hope any misunderstanding can be cleared up. We would be more than happy to publish your responses (unedited by us) on our blog.
Our questions below are based on what an observer in the room related to us. Contrary to what was suggested at the SBOE meeting today, members of the public are not permitted to be close enough to the review panels to know what the review panelists are saying or doing. TFN staff members who attended on Monday confirmed this with TEA staff. In other words, it’s not a “public” meeting in any meaningful sense of the word even though observers may watch the room from behind a designated point (in this case, the chairs set up by TEA staff at the front of the ballroom). So your responses will help clarify what happened on Wednesday.
• When you attended the review team meeting on Wednesday, July 30, did you try in any way to influence the decisions of any review team members on questions of a particular submission’s content, TEKS coverage or factual accuracy?
• It appeared that you spent considerable time with the high school biology review teams on Wednesday. In talking to the biology reviewers, did you discuss the coverage of evolution/human origins and related issues in instructional materials?
• Is it your position that:
– It is appropriate for an SBOE member to join the formal deliberations of a review team?
– It is appropriate for an SBOE member to engage in extensive discussions with members over issues regarding the content of specific textbook submissions?
– It is appropriate for an SBOE member try to influence the decisions of that review committee?
• Do you have any concerns about a process that could allow SBOE members – in a meeting where the public has no access – to lobby review team members for specific recommendations to textbook publishers?
Like you, the Texas Freedom Network applauds the volunteers who serve on these review teams. We believe that the work of the panels in reviewing proposed textbooks and other instructional materials should be completely transparent and free of outside influence. Members of the public have the opportunity to weigh in on proposed instructional materials during public hearings and through written comments. Similarly, members of the State Board of Education are able to express their concerns at the public hearings and in open meetings. To prevent misunderstandings, we would recommend that board members not engage review teams while they are at work on the submitted materials. Or at the very least, ensure that those precise, unedited discussions are available for public review (as they would be if they occurred at an open meeting). We believe our concerns can be met with common-sense safeguards, transparency and public access.
Thanks again for giving us the opportunity to ask you about our concerns. We look forward to hearing from you.
President, Texas Freedom Network
August 2 response from Cargill:
Thank you for contacting me. The public has access to open meetings such as the ones held this week.
Barbara Cargill, Chair, State Board of Education
August 2 email from Kathy:
Thank you for responding. We will publish your response (unedited) on our blog. Do you care to add anything more, or respond to any of the other questions?
I am confused with your answer, as David Anderson[Texas Education Agency legal counsel] said explicitly yesterday that the review team meetings are not “open meetings.”
August 4 reply from Cargill:
To clarify from the TEA attorney:
The textbook review committee meetings aren’t “open meetings” in that legal sense. The review committees aren’t governmental bodies and aren’t making final decisions for a governmental body–they are purely advisory to the Board. The decision has been to allow the public to watch if they want, but it would be perfectly legal to just lock the door and not let anyone but staff and the committee in the room. It’s not an open meeting in a technical sense (not required to be posted/accessible/audible) but has been informally described as “open” because we allow observers.
August 5 email from Kathy:
Thank you for the response. We were aware that we aren’t permitted to listen. As I mentioned in my original email, we had clarified this with TEA staff on Monday of last week. I hope this information is shared with the entire board, as I’m not sure that members left the meeting last week with this understanding. I believe that many of the SBOE members left that meeting with the same understanding you had, that the meetings were open and that the public had access.
Would you like me to share this with other SBOE members, or are you going to ask TEA to do this? Thanks again for responding to my emails.
August 5 reply from Cargill:
I will make sure board members receive this. I did understand that the meetings were open and the public had access. Nothing has changed about this in the years I’ve been on the board.
Again, the claim that the “public had access” to the review panel meetings is very misleading. The distance between public observers and the panels themselves made such “access” almost meaningless — except that observers could see Cargill herself personally working with the reviewers.
We appreciate Cargill’s responses to our emails, but she still hasn’t revealed what all she said to the panelists and why she compromised their supposedly independent reviews. It could be several weeks before we see the reports from the review panels themselves. The state board will hold its first public hearing on the proposed textbooks at its September 17-20 meeting in Austin. It has scheduled for November a final vote on which textbooks to adopt. Those textbooks could be in classrooms for a decade.
If you want students to learn real science in their science classrooms — not discredited creationist arguments that will leave them unprepared for college and the jobs of the 21st century — then join thousands of Texans who have signed our Stand Up for Science petition here. The Texas Freedom Network will keep you informed about the textbook adoption this year and what you can do to stop anti-science activists from undermining the education of Texas kids.