Questionable Motives

February 15, 2010

Why do the Texas state school board curriculum decisions matter so much?

Here are some excerpts from a fantastic article by Russell Shorto published in The New York Times Magazine that answers this question:

Public education has always been a battleground between cultural forces; one reason that Texas’ school-board members find themselves at the very center of the battlefield is, not surprisingly, money. The state’s $22 billion education fund is among the largest educational endowments in the country. Texas uses some of that money to buy or distribute a staggering 48 million textbooks annually — which rather strongly inclines educational publishers to tailor their products to fit the standards dictated by the Lone Star State. California is the largest textbook market, but besides being bankrupt, it tends to be so specific about what kinds of information its students should learn that few other states follow its lead. Texas, on the other hand, was one of the first states to adopt statewide curriculum guidelines, back in 1998, and the guidelines it came up with (which are referred to as TEKS — pronounced “teaks” — for Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) were clear, broad and inclusive enough that many other states used them as a model in devising their own.

The cultural roots of the Texas showdown may be said to date to the late 1980s, when, in the wake of his failed presidential effort, the Rev. Pat Robertson founded the Christian Coalition partly on the logic that conservative Christians should focus their energies at the grass-roots level. One strategy was to put candidates forward for state and local school-board elections — Robertson’s protégé, Ralph Reed, once said, “I would rather have a thousand school-board members than one president and no school-board members” — and Texas was a beachhead. Since the election of two Christian conservatives in 2006, there are now seven on the Texas state board who are quite open about the fact that they vote in concert to advance a Christian agenda. “They do vote as a bloc,” Pat Hardy, a board member who considers herself a conservative Republican but who stands apart from the Christian faction, told me. “They work consciously to pull one more vote in with them on an issue so they’ll have a majority.”

The one thing that underlies the entire program of the nation’s Christian conservative activists is, naturally, religion. But it isn’t merely the case that their Christian orientation shapes their opinions on gay marriage, abortion and government spending. More elementally, they hold that the United States was founded by devout Christians and according to biblical precepts. This belief provides what they consider not only a theological but also, ultimately, a judicial grounding to their positions on social questions. When they proclaim that the United States is a “Christian nation,” they are not referring to the percentage of the population that ticks a certain box in a survey or census but to the country’s roots and the intent of the founders.

The Texas board’s moves to bring Jesus into American history has drawn anger in places far removed from the board members’ constituencies. The issue of Texas’ influence is a touchy one in education circles. With some parents and educators elsewhere leery of a right-wing fifth column invading their schools, people in the multibillion textbook industry try to play down the state’s sway.Tom Barber, who worked as the head of social studies at the three biggest textbook publishers before running his own editorial company, says, “Texas was and still is the most important and most influential state in the country.” And James Kracht, a professor at Texas A&M’s college of education and a longtime player in the state’s textbook process, told me flatly, “Texas governs 46 or 47 states.”

It’s one thing that 60% of American Republicans and about 38% of Democrats believe that humans were created in their present form 10,000 years ago, but when that religious belief translates into electing creationist school board members who vote accordingly for sympathetic curriculum in a state that effectively writes the texbooks for almost all of the states, then we have a titanic problem.

And it’s not just in the United States where this attack by theology into educational curriculum is such a growing concern.  In Britain, the numbers are approaching parity: about a third of people believe the same fairytale as their American counterparts and a majority think that evolution is insufficient to explain life without some Oogity Boogity to solve the really hard problems.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the move of unjustified beliefs from theology into educational curriculum does not stop with science. This year’s focus in Texas is mostly on rewriting history to favour evangelical christianity as the theological framework within which the founding fathers wrote their documents. The intention is to falsely present the US as a christian rather than a secular nation.

One thing we know for sure: the battle between theology and education for school curriculum will keep Texas a vital strategic theatre of operations. Stay tuned…

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