Educating the Uneducated Texas SBoE

Saturday, April 10, 2010
Texas State Senator Rodney Ellis (D) District 13 attempts to educate the Texas SBoE in an editorial on the Houston Chronicle website.

Now's the time to educate State Board of Education


April 8, 2010, 8:19PM

We already know that the Texas Legislature will face a huge fiscal deficit when it meets in January. But it's clear now that legislators must also address a deficit of trust in the State Board of Education.

Parents have become increasingly concerned about state board members who seem more interested in promoting personal and political agendas in public schools than ensuring that our schoolchildren get a sound education. The last three months have once again highlighted why they are worried.
For nearly a year, teachers and scholars worked hard to craft new curriculum standards for social studies classrooms. Then in just two meetings in January and March, the state board shredded their work, making hundreds of ill-considered changes.

Things got so bad in January that even a Republican board member charged that her colleagues were simply “rewriting history.”

For example, political extremists who control the board changed the standards to suggest that Joseph McCarthy's political witch hunts in the 1950s were justified. They removed the concepts of “justice” and “responsibility for the common good” from a standard on good citizenship. They even claimed that women and minorities who struggled for equal and civil rights over decades owe thanks to the “majority” for finally gaining them.

Board members also exposed their own faulty and superficial research by removing Bill Martin — author of the popular children's book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? — from the third-grade standards. Some members mistakenly thought he was a different Bill Martin who wrote a book about Marxism.

The board's March meeting was not any better. Among scores of changes, the board deleted Thomas Jefferson from a world history standard on Enlightenment thinkers who have influenced political revolutions around the world. Board members said Jefferson, who was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence and argued that “a wall of separation between church and state” is essential for freedom, didn't belong in the standard.

The board also rejected a proposed requirement that students learn why our nation's Founders barred government from promoting one religion over all others. Opponents claimed that the Constitution doesn't really protect religious freedom by keeping religion and government separate.

The board made all these changes without asking for the guidance of even one teacher or scholar at the meetings. Their contempt for real expertise could hardly have been clearer.

This kind of nonsense is not new. For years now, extremists on the board have turned issue after issue before them into a divisive, unnecessary “culture war” battle. Those battles reached a high pitch last year. Despite the pleading of world-class scientists in Texas — including Nobel laureates — and businesspeople worried about the education of their future employees, the board inserted creationist arguments against evolution in new science standards.

As the battle over evolution raged, legislators meeting in Austin considered more than a dozen bipartisan bills aimed at reining in the board's power. Many of those bills would have given authority to set curriculum standards and adopt textbooks to teachers and academic experts with the training and knowledge to make informed decisions.
I wrote two such bills and co-sponsored another along with three Republican senators. We warned that the state board's political warfare was recklessly undermining the education Texas students need to succeed in our modern economy. Indeed, putting ideological agendas ahead of education will make it harder for Texas to attract and keep the industries and jobs that our state needs to compete.

None of those bills passed the Legislature last session, but they should have served as a clear warning to the board about the limits of our patience with their irresponsible actions. We will certainly consider similar legislation this spring because Thomas Jefferson was right about the importance of public education. “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization,” he wrote, “it expects what never was and never will be.”

Board members appear to have forgotten those words. It's time they were reminded.
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