Texas Board of Education Fights Over History

An observer holds a protest sign during testimony at the State Board of Education (SBOE) textbook hearings on Wednesday, May 19, 2010.
An observer holds a protest sign during testimony at the State Board of Education (SBOE) textbook hearings on Wednesday, May 19, 2010.

Sometime after 11 p.m. Thursday, having bickered for some 14 hours like the children whose interests they're charged with representing, State Board of Education members failed to agree even on a vote to adjourn the meeting.

They had been nitpicking the state’s history standards and each other since 9 a.m., and the patience of some Democrats in the bunch — who'd lost all the votes, as usual — was wearing a little thin. “I want to know when you’re going to let me go to sleep,” said member Lawrence Allen, D-Fresno, to chairwoman Gail Lowe, R-Lampasas, at one point. Then someone mentioned adjournment, and the board’s conservative majority shot that down, too.

That came a while after Rick Agosto, D-San Antonio — admittedly “a little toasty” — had told board conservatives they could stick Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ inaugural address “where the sun don’t shine.” That preceded another set-to commenced by David Bradley, R-Beaumont, who couldn’t resist making a motion to add the “Hussein” to President Barack Obama’s name.

The marathon hearing capped a year of politically explosive wrangling over the social studies standards that will form the outline for textbooks and tests years into the future. And the finale (or near finale — the group-grope editing continues today) did not disappoint those who have come to love hating Texas’ only internationally notorious state government body. After spending hours deep in the semantic weeds — and with Democratic members often reintroducing issues that had been voted down at previous meetings, sometimes more than once — the board, true to form, dove into the most controversial rewrites late in the evening, long after the public crowds had gone and its own members had grown irritable.

All told, the board considered well over 100 amendments on Thursday, bringing the total to more than 400 rancorous edits debated over more than year. The end result is expected to be formally enacted as the board takes a final vote on the entire curriculum today. And they never even got to the church-state fights on the card; those, too, are expected today. The flurry of changes was the culmination of what the board’s conservative wing has repeatedly called “balancing” to remove perceived left-wing bias in the standards. Meanwhile, critics call the final product a gross right-wing distortion of facts widely accepted by mainstream historians — who themselves have come in for abuse from board members, who consider the academy a den of socialists. The board’s seven social conservatives, two of them lame ducks, are sure to vote for the package, and observers expect that one or more of the board’s more moderate Republicans — Pat Hardy, of Weatherford, Bob Craig, of Lubbock, and Geraldine Miller, of Dallas, another lame duck — will provide the deciding vote. The board’s five Democrats are almost sure to reject the standards.

"Honoring" the commander in chief

The “Hussein” amendment came after board conservatives rewriting the history standards had deemphasized slavery, questioned New Deal entitlements and mandated study of the “optimism” of “thankful” immigrants. Democrat Allen made a motion to add the name of Barack Obama to the standards. It seemed a minor copy edit: He merely wanted the president’s name in a standard that already mentioned the year of his election as a turning point and noted the “first black president.”

Bradley sprang into action. “I’d like to make a motion to insert his middle name, Hussein,” he said. Asked why — it was the first time any discussion of any of official's middle name had come up — Bradley played dumb. “He’s the president of the United States, and I think we should give him the honor and privilege of his full name.” He insisted the board had done the same for “John Fitzgerald Kennedy” and “Ronald Wilson Reagan.”

Some other members were dumbfounded: The Arabic sounding name has been widely used as an epithet in conservative circles and is closely tied to the contention that Obama isn’t an American citizen. “I think it’s pretty obvious what you’re trying to do,” Craig said. “And I don’t think it’s correct that we’ve used the middle names for other presidents.” (That was true, Lowe confirmed shortly later; the board follows whatever style a particular president prefers for his name.)

“There has been so much fun made of that middle name," snapped board member Mavis Knight, D-Dallas. "That’s not what we’re about, since we’re one nation and we’re supposed to live in this utopia,” she said, poking fun at board conservatives’ ardently rosy view of America’s past.

Mary Helen Berlanga, D-Corpus Christi — who left the last meeting in a tantrum after not getting her way on dozens of votes — chided Bradley: “I’m getting pretty fed up with the behavior, and trying to be derogatory. … You’re grinning and making fun, and it’s really upsetting. … We’re talking about something serious: The first African-American president of the United States.”

After pleas from other members to quash the amendment and spare the board further embarrassment, Bradley stood down, but he slapped at his colleagues. “Madam chair, I’ll put an end to the whining. I’ll withdraw the motion,” he said.

Uncivil civics

That exchange followed Agosto's meltdown over the juxtaposition of Jefferson Davis' inaugural speech and an address from Abraham Lincoln. He didn't want Davis or any confederate figure on equal footing with the Union president: “You can put them in the front, put them in the back, put them where the sun don’t shine.”

Perhaps predictably, the Civil War discussion marked the point where decorum, though never quite stable, started to collapse. The bulk of the day’s discussions were reruns from previous meetings: legal vs. illegal immigration, slavery vs. states' rights vs. sectionalism, whether Joseph McCarthy was correct all along about government infiltration by the communists, whether third graders should learn about labor leader Dolores Huerta — even if she was a socialist (no, was the answer, though she survives elsewhere in the standards). In the big picture, the changes made little difference in the documents, and likely will make far less difference once they filter through test-makers and textbook publishers and, finally, down to teachers who largely can teach what and how they want once the material gets to the classroom.

But the order of the day was politics and the culture war, not education. And the Civil War provided the ideal battleground. When Allen sought to add causes of the Civil War to one standard — in his view, slavery and states' rights — it kicked off a racially charged debate that stretched well into the night. Bradley insisted the board had already worked it out and “prioritized” the reasons: sectionalism, states rights, and slavery — in that order.

“It pushes the idea that slavery was not a main issue, but the other two were,” Allen objected.

“We don’t have to beat around the bush. We don’t have to soften the blow — this was all about slavery,” Berlanga added.

The board’s conservative bloc held fast — slavery was the third-most-influential cause of the war — and voted down Allen’s amendment. That debate bled into the faceoff over Lincoln and Davis. At a previous meeting, the social conservative bloc had insisted on including Davis’s inaugural address in a standard that requires students to study Lincoln. Miller waxed nostalgic about the days when Jefferson Davis was a more respected figure in the public mind, at least in the South. “We’re trying to deal with the accuracy of history and give a balance. So many people don’t know what Jefferson Davis did and what was involved,” she said. “He’s been kind of pushed aside during the years.”

Allen and other more liberal members didn’t object to the inclusion of Davis completely but wanted him separated completely from the greatness of Lincoln. “Besides the fact that he was the head of the union, he was the president of the United States,” Berlanga scolded.

Conservatives stood up for Davis but “demoted” him, in the words of Cynthia Dunbar, R-Richmond, all the way to the end of the sentence in question, behind a “contrast” with Lincoln. 

Books on backorder

The final squabbling — which will extend into today’s meeting, starting at 9 a.m. — comes as the board faces serious questions over whether and when it will get the money from the Legislature to buy the actual books or digital materials being amended. Earlier in the week, the board agreed to shelve plans for science textbooks, based on the standards the board approved more than a year ago, because the Legislature, facing a budget crisis, simply does not have the money to buy them. Instead, the Texas Education Agency will ask lawmakers for money to purchase far cheaper supplementary materials, so students can prepare by 2012 for state tests based on the new standards.

The new social studies standards won’t affect tests until at least 2013, already a year later than planned, the board was told by Commissioner of Education Robert Scott. But even that depends on the Legislature appropriating the money for new materials first — something that almost assuredly will not happen in next year’s session. That means the purchase would be pushed back at least until at least the 2013 legislative session, and maybe two years beyond that, as the purchase of science books presumably would take priority. “You never know until the Legislature buys them,” Scott said of the social studies books. “They could turn around and say, ‘We can’t afford to buy the damn things.’”

The state could be forced to delay implementing the tests based on new social studies standards if it cannot finance updated materials for several years, which Scott acknowledged is a real possibility. Otherwise, the state would be vulnerable to an “opportunity to learn” lawsuit, from students alleging they were tested and denied advancement based on material they were never taught. If the Legislature can’t stomach the bill to buy new books for 4.7 million students, the TEA might look to new legislation that empowers the commissioner to purchase digital materials, which Scott said theoretically could be developed to supplement to existing books.

But there’s where the top-to-bottom nature of the board’s standards rewrite could present a serious logistical problem: How can a mere “supplement” cover a set of standards that have been rewritten wholesale, as warring politicians have torn through the books with hundreds of amendments on pet issues, historical figures and events? Indeed, Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, kept referring this week to “the Mercer database” — a cross-referencing of added and deleted names he created so the board could keep up with the scores of changes.

The potential delays continued to give hope to those who would like to see the conservatives’ rewrites scrapped or subjected to yet another edit. "I’ve never seen a standards process reopened, but there’s no rule against it,” said Dan Quinn, spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network, an advocacy group that scolds and scrutinizes the state board for rightwing extremism. “If the purchase of the books gets pushed out longer, that widens your window of opportunity to fix the mess they’ve got right now.”

Over the course of three days, board conservatives repeatedly rebuked criticism they had given the history of minority populations short shrift, often noting the standards included more minority figures “than ever before.” The increase did not appease more liberal members, some of whom were insulted at the suggestion that minority history — and particularly the struggle against white oppression — had been fully and fairly treated in the standards. Allen referenced a 1963 speech by Martin Luther King in which King demanded, “We want all of our rights, we want them here, and we want them now.”

“When we sit here and hear, ‘You got more of them in than you’ve ever had before,’ they don’t understand the pain of that statement,” Allen said. “We want all of our history — in its totality — here and now in Texas — not, ‘We gave you two spots in where you only had one spot before.’”

Scott, who has heretofore stayed completely out of the cutthroat politics of textbook standards, told the board Thursday that the practical considerations of getting tests rewritten and materials bought for students trump any political concern. “If you delay too much, you’ll have to start all over again. Regardless of the political will behind delaying it (the adoption), there are some real-world implications,” he said. “Prepare to blind your eyes to the tantrums that will be thrown, and let’s get this process done.”

"Every good meeting …"

Scott's comments were among the first of Thursday morning. Turns out, getting anything done would prove difficult. And no tantrums from outsiders could match those of some board members, nor could they match the poisonous rhetoric board members traded traded among themselves in a meeting that dragged on until shortly after midnight.

Agosto seemed particularly on edge as the night wore on. He gets credit, in fact, for prompting an earlier-than-scheduled dinner break when Lowe wanted to give him some time to calm down. At some point, Agosto felt slighted at the respect accorded another member across the aisle. Some members occasionally checked their facts with Hardy, R-Weatherford, a veteran social studies teacher, calling her the “resident historian.”

“Can we stop saying ‘residential historian’ or whatever we’re saying here?” a clearly peeved Agosto admonished his colleagues. “All board members here are on equal footing.”

Two dozen or so historical revisions later, the board members seemed finally to have had enough of themselves. The meeting adjourned, at 12:06 a.m., after member Craig made perhaps the wisest comment of the session: “Every good meeting should end on the day it started, and we didn’t make it.” 

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