SBOE's History Rewrite May Ultimately Not Matter

Cynthia Dunbar and Don McLeroy
Cynthia Dunbar and Don McLeroy

As the State Board of Education again plows into the state social studies standards this week, with more ideological edits on tap and a final vote expected Friday, hanging over the proceedings will be questions over whether the board’s work could ultimately be undone — and whether its impact, even if the changes stand, will match months of political infighting and hype.

Starting with a public hearing today, Texas will again become the backdrop for national coverage and ridicule of squabbling over church-state separation, the inclusion of minority figures and events, and whether overt patriotism amounts to a whitewash of the darker periods of American history. But all of it comes amid shifting electoral politics on the state board that are likely to make this week’s spectacle the last of a board era in which social conservatives dominate. Those changes — along with fundamental shifts in the textbook market, due to fast-evolving technology — cast doubt on whether “textbooks” in their current form will even matter much by the time the social studies rewrite hits classrooms.

Meanwhile, more moderate and liberal members, along with scores of outside advocates, still hold out hope of turning back the changes. And the specter of an $18 billion state budget shortfall may well give them more time to do so: The board voted Tuesday to postpone the expected purchase of new science books — part of an estimated $1.4 billion textbook request that members knew would be dead on arrival at the Legislature in the 2011 session. The financing delay likely will have the domino effect of pushing back legislative appropriations for new social studies books to the 2015 legislative session, said Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe.

“It’s not clear when or if the new books will be published,” she said of science texts after Tuesday’s preliminary vote, which will have to be finalized Friday. She called the future of social studies books “a wildcard.” At the same time, the TEA and the instructional materials industry, both digital and print, are pushing forward under new legislation that both promotes electronic textbook development and weakens the SBOE's historic purview over statewide curriculum.

“It could be a whole new publishing world by then,” Ratcliffe said. “It’s pretty much a giant puzzle.”

Rewriting the rewrite

Adding to the uncertainty, some current board members still have designs on unraveling the social studies rewrites. The current draft of the curriculum defies mere “damage control,” said board Mary Helen Berlanga, D-Corpus Christi. “There’s so much damage, it's like being in a wreck. Sometimes you can’t repair the automobile — you got to just go get a new one.”

Recent elections have made lame ducks out of two Republicans — Don McLeroy, of Bryan, and Geraldine Miller, of Dallas — whose votes have been crucial to the passage of right-leaning amendments. A third Republican who voted with the arch-conservative bloc, Cynthia Dunbar, of Richmond, is retiring. Democrat Rick Agosto, of San Antonio — who has in the past provided a swing vote for social conservatives but has generally opposed them on social studies — is retiring as well.

Leading up to this week’s meeting, a host of interest groups (including a consortium of history professors) and politicians (including the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, the House Black Caucus and the Senate Hispanic Caucus) have called on the SBOE to either scrap the current standards or delay their ratification until newly elected board members take office. Berlanga said this week that she plans to make a motion to send the standards to a panel of history experts and professors to ensure their accuracy before any approval. (If recent history is any guide, the measure will get voted down.)

Meanwhile, two Repubicans who will likely be joining the board in January — Thomas Ratliff and George Clayton, who each face token Libertarian opposition in the fall — along with a Democrat in a hotly contested race — Judy Jennings — said in interviews this week that they would support reopening the standards process in January, after they are sworn in, if consensus emerged on the newly constituted board. “I would defer to somebody who has been on the board for a while to approach me to reopen the standards,” said Ratliff, who defeated McLeroy. “But if they asked, I’d vote ‘yes’ to revisit.” Jennings and Clayton lent similar tentative support to the prospect of turning back the changes, which both have criticized in their campaigns.

“The State Board of Education isn’t supposed to be that damned interesting,” Clayton said.

"Law of the land"

Social conservatives are amused at the protest activity but hardly cowed by it. Asked whether his lame-duck status should have any effect on his board work, McLeroy called the suggestion “ridiculous.” He’s still in office and intends to govern as he sees fits, he said.

Another member in the near-majority block of social conservatives, David Bradley, R-Beaumont, openly mocked some of the opposition and assured this week’s vote would be the final word on what goes into social studies textbooks for about 4.7 million Texas public school children.

“What’s the point of having a hearing?” he said of today’s planned airing of public comment, at which a packed and angry house is expected. “The Mexican American Caucus already held its own hearing.”

Bradley cracked that he might ask a liberal board member to join him today in a “bipartisan effort to go play golf.” More seriously, he suggested the some in the board opposition learn a lesson in how to comport themselves in a democracy that naturally creates winners and losers. And he noted that the last set of social studies standards, passed in 1997, went through in a 10-5 party line vote, after many of the same arguments.

“We didn’t hold press conferences or seek legislative retribution. We went out there and ran some campaigns and said, ‘We need a little help.’ That’s the process,” he said. “And all these other folk that are going to come and protest and tell people what to think — when you ask them if they’ve actually read the standards, it’s like asking Nancy Pelosi if she’s actually read the health care bill.”

As for the possibility of the standards getting killed or re-edited by newly elected board members, Bradley said, “It’s not going to happen. ... The day after the vote, on Friday, they become the law of the land.” The vote triggers immediate implementation of the standards by the Texas Education Agency, which will use them to create tests and teacher training materials, and by publishing houses that are already overdue in starting to work on textbooks, Bradley said.

It may not be that simple. With any state redesign of the test comes the obligation to get new materials that are aligned to the test into the hands of teachers and students. That's why the board will ask the Legislature to buy much cheaper "supplemental materials" in science instead of new books. Even without the science books, the board will be asking for nearly $900 million just to replace and update existing materials in all subjects. 

Students are currently scheduled to take new social studies tests in 2012, Ratcliffe said. If the Legislature delays purchasing new social studies books — which would be a big buy, as they are for every grade and multiple subject areas — state education officials likely would decide to keep testing students based on the current standards rather than what the state board might approve on Friday, Ratcliffe said. “If there’s a delay in funding, there’s no doubt about it,” she said. And the delay seems quite likely.

The new board order

Berlanga — who has fought hard and often unsuccessfully for the inclusion of minority history — disagreed that Friday’s vote will be final. She said the new board will be free to change the standards and that publishers would be wise to hedge their investments.

“Normally, publishers might immediately start working,” she said. “But if the publishers are smart, they might hesitate just a few months. … They might wait to take their cues until January. We’re going to have [a majority of] moderate Republicans and Democrats. You got to admit, the Democrats on the board are pretty moderate — it’s just that McLeroy and his group are so far to the right they make the middle look like the left.”

Electoral results so far support Berlanga’s read on the shifting political landscape. Currently, the 15-member board has only seven reliable social conservatives — Bradley, McLeroy and Dunbar; Terry Leo, R-Spring; Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands; Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio; and chairwoman Gail Lowe, R-Lampasas —but it has succeeded by pulling the requisite eighth vote from a revolving cast of members.

Still, the bloc seems poised to lose power. Ratliff and Clayton are widely expected to win in November’s general election. Jennings is in a contested race in District 10 against Republican Marsha Farney, the more moderate of the two Republicans in the April 13 runoff, for the the seat vacated by Dunbar, who did not seek re-election. Clayton, a political unknown, staged a GOP primary upset against Miller, a 26-year incumbent who sometimes votes with social conservatives. The seat being vacated by Agosto will go to either Democrat Micheal Soto or Republican Tony Cunningham.

Ratliff and Clayton both campaigned on depoliticizing the board. Rather than criticize specific amendments, Ratliff said the entire curriculum revision process has been corrupted. Ironically, he said, the social conservatives have proved a model of the perils of top-down government control, even as they have inserted amendment after amendment about the glories of limited government and free markets. His chief edit to the standards would be to delete most of them or at least make almost all of them voluntary to both publishers and local districts.

“When ‘local control’ becomes ‘Austin,’ that’s a problem,” he said. “They’re called ‘independent school districts’ for a reason.

Comedy Central didn’t expose the problems. The problem started two years ago, when they should have appointed real live experts instead of political appointees. … So the work of the board becomes a political exercise rather than an academic exercise.”

Clayton, a teacher from Dallas, said he couldn’t say for sure whether he would reopen the history standards debate until he could fully examine both the resulting document and procedural and financial implications. “But I certainly wouldn’t object to the discussion,” he said.

“It’s something of a legacy for them, I guess,” he said. “But the politics on the board are definitely going to be different. … Any educator worth his salt does not want a book or lesson plan, or anything coming into the classroom, that reflects half the truth. … What’s gotten lost in all this is that teachers have a great amount of leeway in how they teach. I know some in Dallas who never open the textbook.”

The digital revolution and the myth of national influence

In the years it will likely take the state to get around to purchasing social studies textbooks — or digital materials, or whatever — Clayton’s statement may prove far more typical: It's possible that no teacher will open a textbook. Few can predict what the state of the textbook publishing market — which has already gone through a wrenching downsizing and consolidation into three big companies — will look like in 2015, probably the soonest the books might be bought. Similarly uncertain are prospects for the economy, the state budget and the SBOE, which will have gone through another election cycle by then. To say nothing of how education reform politics could morph in five years.

All these forces will exert great influence on whether the legacy of the agonizing current debate over the history standards will make any real difference in the education of children in Texas or elsewhere. The dominant media narrative, particularly from national outlets, has dictated that whatever the SBOE decides this week will have a huge impact on what gets into textbooks and classrooms across America, because of big-state buying power. But that assessment represents, at best, a static analysis of a fast-evolving and shifty landscape. At worst, it’s not even true today: Some industry experts have called the constant citing of the state’s national influence a canard, an “urban myth,” because of the rise of different curriculum standards for every state and the publishing industry’s increasing ability to customize.

Some on the left dispute that claim. Dan Quinn, the communications director of the Texas Freedom Network — an advocacy group that dogs the SBOE for alleged right-wing extremism — worked in the textbook industry for 14 years. He maintains Texas does indeed still affect the national market, particularly for small states, but concedes that the influence is on the wane and could die as digital curriculum materials reshape the market.

“It’s in the industry’s interest to say they can customize books,” Quinn said. “The last thing they want is other states thinking they’re getting books designed for Texas in a hyper-politicized process. … But the influence of electronic textbooks could have serious impact on Texas’s national influence. My guess is that it will allow for an expansion of the market to a lot of smaller players. It’s cost-effective. There’s no paper costs, no binding, no warehouse, and you can edit any way you want anytime you want, so you can customize, and small players can compete.”

As for the prospect of the next board unraveling the current board’s work, Quinn said, “If they are so far out on the fringe that they raise outcry with scholars and politicians and educators, they may have to revisit it. That answer in part depends on how crazy things get this week."

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