After an afternoon spent wrangling over the proper definition of jihad and the influence of Moses on the Founding Fathers, it was Common Core that ultimately derailed the State Board of Education’s initial vote on giving a stamp of approval to new social studies textbooks Tuesday.
An initiative spawned by the National Governors Association to set uniform academic standards across U.S. public schools, Common Core has become a frequent punching bag for conservative activists who believe it injects liberal bias into the classroom.
Its specter first emerged Tuesday when one of the more than 20 witnesses testifying at the meeting alerted board members that supplementary materials on the website of Cengage Learning, publisher of a sixth grade social studies textbook, mention the national standards.
“I don’t know how this book even got past anybody," said Tincy Miller, a Dallas Republican. "I’m not voting for anything that says Common Core, I can assure you of that.”
Until the last hour of the meeting, it appeared the 15-member board would grant preliminary approval for instructional materials from all publishers except Cengage. Then, some board members balked at that, worried that with changes from publishers still coming in, they would be voting on content without a chance to review it.
With four Republicans abstaining and all five Democrats voting against approval, the motion for preliminary approval failed — leaving only a final vote Friday.
The board is considering 96 products for eight different social studies courses that will be used in Texas classrooms next fall, the culmination of a public review that began this summer.
Throughout the approval process, publishers have faced criticism from groups across the political spectrum for perceived flaws in how books handle topics like climate change, Islam, and the role Christianity played in the American Revolution. The process itself, which allows publishers to make changes in response to public input up until the day of the final vote, has also raised concern.
“Some of it’s some personality, it’s some process. But this process is jacked up when we make decisions at 7 p.m. on a Tuesday night for 5 million kids,” said Thomas Ratliff, a Mount Pleasant Republican, after the vote. "We’re getting stuff still coming in and being asked to vote on it.”
The board heard more than four hours of public testimony, much focusing on a 469-page report submitted by the Truth in Texas Textbooks Coalition in late October. Formed by retired Lt. Col. Roy White, a San Antonio-based Tea Party activist, the report identified instances of what White called “pro-Islam and anti-Christian” biases and errors in the books.
Several board members also expressed annoyance at the media for spreading a perception that Texas teaches schoolchildren that Moses was a Founding Father.
“Have you seen anywhere, Moses — who died 3,000 years before our declaration — that he was a founding father?” asked Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, of one witness. “Gee whiz, it’s just outrageous.”
The confusion springs from a section in the state standards that identifies Moses — along with William Blackstone, John Locke and Charles de Montesquieu — as an individual whose principles informed the nation's founding documents.
History scholars have criticized the inclusion of Moses as an influence on the origins of American government. On Tuesday, Jennifer Graber, a religious studies professor at the University of Texas at Austin, referred to those concerns as she presented a letter signed by more than 50 academics to board members.
The proposed books "exaggerate and even invent claims” on Moses’ influence on the country’s origin, Graber said.
“We are deeply concerned over the ahistorical nature of those representations,” she said.
Though social studies textbooks have drawn the most attention, instructional materials up for adoption at the November meeting also include those covering math, fine arts, and technical and career education. Those subjects were approved without controversy.
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.