The state curriculum system known as CSCOPE — little known until recently — can now add two hours of lively and at times testy debate to a long list of public appearances that includes State Board of Education meetings, legislative hearings and the Glenn Beck Show.
On Saturday evening, SBOE member Thomas Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, and state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, the chairman of the Senate's education committee, sparred over the controversial lesson plans before a vocal audience that filled the University of Texas at Tyler's student activity center. Grassroots activists have relentlessly pushed to eliminate the lessons, which are used by 70 percent of Texas school districts, because of a perceived liberal, anti-American agenda.
The unusual event — a public debate between two elected officials of the same party who are not primary opponents — came about after Ratliff accepted an offer from Patrick, who said on his Facebook page that he would debate any CSCOPE defender.
Patrick, who has led the charge against the lessons, focused his arguments on the lack of transparency behind the operations of the state education centers that produced them.
"The thing that we are missing here is that there seems to be this fight and sometimes attack against parents who have a right to ask a question," he said. "I don't understand this 'drink the Kool-Aid' CSCOPE mentality that we don't care if there is anything wrong with CSCOPE — we just want our CSCOPE."
Ratliff, whose district is filled with small, rural schools that have depended on CSCOPE's lesson plans, has championed the right of local school boards to choose how best to teach state curriculum.
"Local districts ought to be able to make that decision for themselves, not have you make it for them," he told Patrick at one point during the debate.
Many school districts are scrambling to find alternate lesson plans for the 2013-14 school year after Patrick brokered an agreement with the state education service centers to no longer produce CSCOPE lessons. Some of them have opted to continue using the now freely available lessons, much to the outrage of its opponents, because they are now in the public domain. A district court judge recently threw out a legal attempt to stop Llano ISD from using CSCOPE.
After the debate, Patrick insisted the evening's discussion was not a political event, echoing a point he made on stage when he told the audience that the issue had become "a political football and it shouldn't be." He said he agreed to participate because he thought it was the appropriate thing to do.
But the attention on CSCOPE plays out against the backdrop of the upcoming 2014 primaries. Patrick is one of three Republican candidates hoping to topple Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the March primary. Dewhurst has also publicly praised efforts to halt districts' use of the lessons.
Ratliff referenced the rivalry between Patrick and Dewhurst when he spoke with reporters after the event.
"What this has become is a tug-of-war between two guys who want to be lieutenant governor, and they are using public schools as the rope," he said. "And I'm tired of them being the rope."
Reeve Hamilton, reporting from Tyler, contributed to this story.