SBOE Conservatives and Liberals Try Compromise

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State Board of Education members, in seven hours of amending its social studies curriculum Thursday evening, mostly made nice with one another before stopping short of tackling high school history, the most contentious subject area to date. The result: A view of history that grew both more conservative and more multicultural — two goals that have so often seemed at odds.

Conservative members supported the inclusion of Hispanic historical figures in ways some feared they wouldn’t. Board Member Mary Helen Berlanga had earlier said she was prepared to “fight to the bitter end" for Hispanic history, but found little opposition Wednesday night.

In the fourth grade, for instance, the board approved adding Raul Gonzalez, the first Hispanic to serve on the Texas Supreme Court and the first to win a statewide election in Texas. The board also approved, without opposition, a fourth-grade standard calling for study of the Tejanos who died at the Alamo (Though the board declined to list their names in the standards, that would not prohibit textbooks from including them.)

“These are the people who died for Texas and wanted Texas to be free,” Berlanga told her fellow board members. “That can make history exciting to fourth graders, who might even see a last name similar to theirs.”

In the previous days’ testimony, Berlanga’s arguments had been bolstered by University of Texas-El Paso professor Julio Noboa, who had examined Texas history textbooks as part of his graduate study.

“My shocking discovery was, that in the eighth and eleventh grades, there was not a single mention of any Hispanic at all,” Noboa said. “If there’s any state in the union with a strong Hispanic history, it’s Texas. Can you imagine the millions of students who have gone through our public schools without that knowledge? That kind of ignorance breeds bigotry.”

Debates leading up to the board’s consideration of social studies standards often pitted typically conservative “pro-America” dogma against more typically liberal explorations of women and minority leaders. Yet in the nitty-gritty of at-times testy negotiations, a spirit of mostly polite horse-trading predominated, and most members seemed to get most of what they wanted. And though an eight-member majority block dominated by conservatives often controls the board, votes over specific amendments seldom broke so neatly. The board plans to pick up today where it left off Thursday, and it still must ratify all of the amendments passed out of committee in a formal board vote.

As they supported more explorations of minority history on Thursday, conservative board members also steadily bent the curriculum toward free-market interpretations while excising perceived hints of liberalism. Sometimes the edits were subtle, as when conservative board member Terri Leo twice added “benefits” to standards discussing the “consequences” of man’s taming of the natural environment. Other times, members were more blunt. After a controversy much earlier this year, board members had earlier made clear labor leader Cesar Chavez would be included in the standards. Yet Wednesday night, the board booted Dolores Huerta, the woman who, with Chavez, co-founded the United Farm Workers. The reason?

“She’s a member of the Democratic Socialist Party of America,” said board member Geraldine Miller. “I don’t think she should be in a list of people exemplifying good citizenship, like Helen Keller and Clara Barton." (Miller apparently did not realize Helen Keller was a socialist.)

Conservatives added as well as deleted. Board member Don McLeroy, part of the conservative voting bloc, got no opposition to his proposed standard calling for sixth graders to “understand the poor record of collectivist, non-free-market economic systems to deliver improved economic development over numerous contemporary and historical societies.”

Yet he also made a point of calling for the addition of W.E.B Du Bois, noting that he had been shocked, upon reading about Du Bois as young man in the 1960s, that he had not been taught about him in high school. “He was the founder of the NAACP and a great American,” McLeroy said.

Some amendments and historical figures came in for rougher treatment. While board members generally supported Hispanic figures, a notable exception was Henry Cisneros, the mayor of San Antonio and first Hispanic mayor of a major U.S. city. Board member Rich Agosto proposed his inclusion, but was shot down. Board member Pat Hardy objected vigorously, citing the “debacle” he later created as U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. (Cisneros plead guilty to lying to federal officials during a background check about payments he made to a former mistress.)

The board also spurned Agosto’s other recommendation, to add Miriam A. “Ma” Ferguson, who became the first female governor of Texas after her husband, Governor James Ferguson, was impeached. “She was governor in name only and did whatever her husband told her to do,” Hardy said. “That’s not the kind of female role model I want in the standards.”

Some figures drew unexpected ire. Board member Barbara Cargill sought to add Thomas Paine — Founding Father and author of Common Sense, the landmark pamphlet advocating American independence — but Paine didn't pass muster with Hardy.

“I don’t want to cut the guy down in front of everybody,” she said, apparently not wanting to speak ill of the long-dead, though she the proceeded to do so: “You need to look a little deeper. Thomas Paine was a good writer … but after that he did nothing for the Revolution. He died penniless. He left America — skipped town, if you catch my drift.”

The dispute dissipated when a board member pointed out that Paine already resided in a standard for later grades, causing the board to put off his fate another day. 

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