*Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.
Weeks after a Houston-area mother sparked an uproar over a caption in her son’s textbook that inaccurately described African slaves as “workers,” the State Board of Education tentatively approved several changes to its textbook adoption process.
However, the 15-member elected board on Wednesday narrowly rejected a proposal that would’ve given it the option of creating an expert panel for the sole purpose of identifying errors in textbooks.
The board, which oversees the textbook adoption process, voted 7-8 against an amendment proposed by its vice chairman, Thomas Ratliff, a Republican from Mount Pleasant who often clashes with more conservative Republican members.
Those members, including David Bradley of Beaumont and Geraldine Miller of Dallas, blasted Ratliff’s proposal Wednesday, saying it would send a signal that the current textbook adoption process isn't sound and unnecessarily add an additional layer of bureaucracy to the process.
They also took issue with a provision in the amendment that said the state’s education commissioner could appoint Texas-based academics to the panel, with at least one board member noting the “philosophical differences” that often emerge between the board and professors who review proposed textbooks.
“I don’t want to send a message that the current system or the current committee, that — well, they’re not that important,” Miller said.
Academics and members of the public from across the political spectrum detailed what they perceived as crucial flaws — or omissions — in the social studies textbooks the board approved last fall, including inaccurate descriptions of world religions and out-of-date racial terminology. Publishers made dozens of changes in response to that input.
Controversy over the materials flared up again last month after Pearland mother Roni Dean-Burren posted a screen shot on Facebook of a text message exchange with her ninth-grade son who sent her a photo of an infographic in his McGraw-Hill World Geography textbook that read: “The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations."
The backlash prompted an apology and correction from the publisher.
Ratliff quipped Wednesday that he knows “people are concerned about pointy-headed liberals in their ivory towers” getting more involved in the textbook adoption process, but said that creating the option of having such a review panel would demonstrate that the board is concerned about such errors and is actively doing something to address them. The proposal is somewhat of a backpedal for Ratliff, who defended the textbooks amid last month's controversy and described the error as an "isolated incident."
"I still agree the mistake was an isolated incident, but our process can always be improved," Ratliff told the Tribune Wednesday.
Board member Erika Beltran, a Democrat from Dallas who backed Ratliff’s amendment Wednesday, said the board is known for textbook adoption and its reputation in that realm is “not positive and I think we all know that."
All five Democrats serving on the board voted for Ratliff's proposal, along with Republican Tom Maynard of Florence. Newly appointed board chairwoman Donna Bahorich voted with seven other Republicans in opposition.
While the board rejected Ratliff’s amendment Wednesday, it also preliminarily approved several other changes to its textbook adoption process that are designed to improve it — including easing public participation and clarifying the board’s power to penalize publishers for errors.
A Texas Education Agency spokeswoman said the modifications did not stem not from the October controversy, but that “new staff over that area wanted to clean up and update this rule.”
Board member Marty Rowley, a Republican from Amarillo who voted against Ratliff's amendment, said those other changes "will remedy the issues that maybe this (Ratliff's amendment) is designed to address."
"I just want to speak in opposition to the proposed amendment, but also in support of our current system because I think we’re making it stronger and better and more expert-laden than it has been in the past," he said before the vote.
The modifications will help "somewhat" with identifying inaccuracies, but Ratliff said he "would have preferred a panel solely charged with factual errors rather than the shotgun approach of looking for everything."
As for Dean-Burren, also a doctoral student at the University of Houston, she said in a video posted on Facebook late Wednesday that the board is "full of poo."
"I ... don't understand what it would hurt to have another level of checks and balances when it comes to books that show up in front of our students and in front of our kids and books that tell our narrative — or don't tell our narrative — properly," she said.