Social Conservatives Rewrite History Standards

Barbara Cargill
Barbara Cargill

Late Thursday afternoon, after losing a series of attempts to include Hispanic history in state social studies standards, State Board of Education member Mary Helen Berlanga gazed down at a new stack of amendments — stripping victories she thought she had gained at a meeting in January, including the inclusion of Hispanic heroes of the Alamo.

Board conservatives had been shooting down her liberal faction in split votes all day — in the latest example, it removed a Hispanic artist because of one abstract painting of a woman with bare breasts — and Berlanga figured nothing would change through the night, a prediction that would prove true.

Then Berlanga looked across the room to see conservative member Don McLeroy proposing the inclusion of three new white historic figures, including Sul Ross, a Texas Governor, Confederate general, a president of the university now called Texas A&M. “Every Aggie knows him. He’s a fine gentleman,” McLeroy explained.

Berlanga’s frustration poured fourth — before she walked out the meeting for the first time since she started serving in 1982.

“I’ve done all I can do today, folks. I’ve listened, tried to work with you, given you names, come back with new amendments to satisfy everyone — and nothing works. You complained about the lists (of Hispanic figures) being too long … And now it looks like you’re able to put in the names all of these people, God knows who they are,” she said. “So I’ve had it … I’m leaving for the evening. Everyone can go ahead and remove the Tejanos who died at the Alamo and we can all pretend that we live in white America and Hispanics don’t exist.”

The moment put a fine point on a day when conservatives demonstrated their dominance on the board, having their way with the social studies standards in dozens of votes that limited the discussion of race and gender issues; added emphasis on pet issues like gun rights, limited government and free markets; and, perhaps most notably, challenged the notion of separation of church and state. Member Cynthia Dunbar, R-Richmond, called that doctrine, crafted in myriad U.S. Supreme Court decisions, “not historically accurate” and counter to the intent of the founding fathers.  

The church-state amendment from Mavis Knight, D-Dallas, read: “Examine the reasons why the founding fathers protected religious freedom in America by barring the government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion above all others.” (See extended arguments from Knight and Dunbar here.)

The board is expected to vote Friday on a recommendation to send the curriculum on for final approval in May. But the board will collect public comment between now and then and could add more amendments at any point. In other amendments that characterized the day, Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, inserted standards calling for students to “identify reasons for limiting the power of government” and “review the record of human rights abuses of unlimited governments.” Meanwhile, liberals consistently accused the Republican majority of a historical “whitewash” in stripping the curriculum of mentions of racism and rights abuses closer to home.

Rolling into the night, confident in a solid bloc of conservative votes, board member McLeroy passed amendments rewriting a large chunk of the discussion of civil rights in high school. Among the changes, he proposed requiring teaching of the “unrealistic expectations of unequal outcomes,” a phrase he never explained.

“Maybe I could be enlightened on what that means,” said member Bob Craig, R-Lubbock. McLeroy stared at his amendment, saying nothing, for some time, then agreed to delete it.

More debate centered on another McLeroy amendment, which ultimately passed after much debate and a few tweaks, reading: “analyze the effectiveness of the adversarial approach taken by some civil rights groups, such as the Black Panthers, versus the philosophically persuasive tone of Dr. Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a Dream’ speech, and his letter from the Birmingham Jail.”

Member Lawrence Allen Jr., D-Fresno, called the amendment “Utopian thinking” and urged members not to isolate King as the sole cause of civil rights advancement. King was only one in a long line of people and groups, taking a variety of tactics, Allen said. “There were actually a large number of people walking away from King’s movement before the changes took place, because they weren’t viewed as effective,” he said. “Who broke the law? And what makes them adversarial? … Because they don’t take the philosophy of ‘I’ll let you hit me and I won’t hit back’? … There’s no recorded history of civil rights groups going out and committing all kinds of violence.”

The board majority disregarded Allen’s argument. Allen and fellow Democrat Rick Agosto left the meeting as well, though without announcing it so dramatically as Berlanga had. As he walked out into the night, Agosto said simply, “We’re outnumbered. I’m sure they’ll pass more controversial amendments.”

Not long after, McLeroy and others introduced a slew of changes, some of which were retreads of battles lost by conservatives in January. Then, McLeroy had been shot down in his attempt to delete “hip-hop and add country.” (A compromise added country and kept hip-hop.)

“I believe anything we include in these TEKS (standards) is like an establishment endorsement, and hip-hop has major elements in it that are degrading to society, women especially,” McLeroy said before the board voted in the change over faint-hearted objections from Knight and Pat Hardy, R-Weatherford.

In one instance, however, Democratic members scored a victory, apparently convincing some conservatives that a proposal from one of their own, Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, would go a step too far. Cargill proposed deleting from the sociology standards a phrase mandating study of “institutional racism.” Cargill argued a nearby standard already mentioned “treatment” of minorities.

“I think it’s a negative standard. I’d like to see it removed,” she said.

Berlanga and several other liberal members objected. “We’ve all already been whitewashing all of the social studies up this point, and now we’re going it in sociology. We have to have some integrity to this.” Conservatives didn’t speak against the amendment, but many didn’t vote for it, either. Only members Terri Leo, R-Spring, David Bradley, R-Beaumont, and Cargill supported it.

In one of the day’s more bizarre debates, again in sociology, Cargill successfully eliminated discussion of “sex and gender and social constructs.”

“This allows students to go into the world of transvestites, transsexuals and God-knows-what-else,” Cargill said.

Other members remarked they hadn’t read that standard that way at all, thinking it merely referred to the changing role of woman generally as they entered the workforce. Even so, remarked Knight, “Any high school student knows the gay persons in their school, the bisexuals in their school, the transsexuals in their school. They know there is gender confusion, so you might as well bring it out and discuss it. It might cut down on the bullying.”

As the night wore on, with most of the Democrats gone, and all members weary and cranky, the board passed a flurry of late amendments. One filed by McLeroy called for study of the notion of American Exceptionalism, a concept that has sparked much debate. Another, from Bradley, ensured study of the “unintended consequences” of the Great Society, affirmative action, and Title IX. Others added numerous references to examples of the glories of free enterprise, a phrase with scores of mentions through the document. McLeroy credited the free enterprise system for inexpensive computers, cell phones and GPS equipment.  

“I don’t see them coming up with technological innovations in Cuba,” Bradley cracked, clearly having fun by this point. “The favorite car in Cuba is a ’57 Chevy.”

As Berlanga predicted, the board did, in fact, remove the standard, previously approved in January, calling for study of “Tejano leaders” who died at the Alamo.

Bradley said state historical experts told him, “The one Tejano leader left before the fight.” (Berlanga, out in the hallway, said the Tejanos were in question were “fighters,” not leaders, and she would have agreed to that change.) In a related standard, the board maintained a reference to some specific Hispanics involved, but changed the “including” in front of their names as others to “such as” — meaning they don’t have to be included in the textbook.

Outside in the hallway, holding court with reporters, Berlanga quipped that discovering — late in life — that Hispanics had fought and died at the Alamo, was like “discovering a dinosaur bone.” Hispanics at the Alamo, throughout her life, had been personified only in the villainy of Santa Anna.

Conservatives simply will not face facts that Texas will in future years be majority Hispanic, Berlanga said. And Hispanic children need to learn their own heritage, which would also benefit all races. “They just aren’t facing the figures dealing with the population of our state,” she said

More than once during the day, she recommended the Legislature consider eliminating the state education board entirely.

“I think we’re going downhill,” she said after the morning session. “To say that America has always treated everyone fairly is a total distortion … I hate to always be the one who brings those things up, but if I don’t, I’m contributing to the distortions.” 

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