AUSTIN, Texas (BP)–The Texas State Board of Education’s vote to adopt changes to social studies curricula has supporters affirming an academic balance brought to left-leaning subject matter, while critics are crying foul over alleged downplaying of church-state separation, among other things.
In a 9-5 vote along party lines, the GOP-dominated board adopted the standards that will guide instruction in Texas public schools for nearly 5 million students and determine content for future textbooks and standardized tests. Texas is influential in the textbook market because it buys or distributes about 48 million books annually, influencing textbook content nationally.
The board, in maintaining most of the changes initially approved in March and ratified with the May 21 vote, refused some suggested revisions to social studies standards, opting to retain requirements that students learn about historical notables such as Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison and adding language about significant political ideas, including the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” cited in the Declaration of Independence.
Among the board’s more controversial changes is a requirement that students “compare and contrast” the doctrine of church-state separation — rooted in U.S. Supreme Court rulings — with First Amendment language that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”
Some conservative groups such as the Liberty Institute (formerly the Free Market Foundation) defended the requirement while Americans United for Separation of Church and State labeled it the product of a “right-wing fundamentalist bloc” on the board.
Board member Mavis Knight (D-Dallas) argued the requirement implies that Supreme Court rulings tying church-state separation to the First Amendment are illegitimate, while former board chairman Don McLeroy (R-College Station) said students should weigh “the current view of separation of church and state with the actual language in the First Amendment,” the Dallas Morning News reported.
Thomas Jefferson, who was removed from a list of leading Enlightenment philosophers in world history standards, was restored to that list, joining Voltaire, John Locke and others. McLeroy had argued Jefferson was not a leading Enlightenment thinker but a product of those philosophers.
Jefferson also remained in the American history curriculum, though there was outcry after false reports he had been removed from the standards altogether.
At board meetings late last year, references to Christmas and Rosh Hashanah were reinserted into the standards after attempts by a revision committee of educators and historians to scuttle them in favor of Diwali, a five-day Hindu festival. Those changes remained in the final standards approved this month.
Earlier, the board rejected attempts to change date references of A.D. and B.C. to C.E. and B.C.E. (common era and before common era, respectively), despite contention from board member Mavis Knight (D-Dallas) that C.E. and B.C.E. are now standard in academic circles.
The new standards also added references to:
-— free market economist Milton Friedman, who heavily influenced Ronald Reagan’s supply-side approach to economics, as a notable contributor to economics.
-— the idea of “American exceptionalism” — that American ideals are different and unique from other nations.
-— America as a “constitutional republic” rather than a “democracy.”
— major political ideas in history including inalienable rights, the divine right of kings, social contract theory, and the rights of resistance to illegitimate government.
Texas reviews standards in given subjects every 10 years.
The state’s major papers, including the Dallas Morning News and the Austin American-Statesman, criticized the new standards, with the Dallas paper hinting that the fight might not be over. It editorialized May 26 that several new board members who take office Jan. 1 should “work fast” to overturn the changes, even though, it admitted, textbook publishers would be hesitant to wait on even more changes.
The board drew wide media attention last year when it ratified new science standards requiring biology students to “analyze, evaluate and critique” scientific theories, “examining all sides of scientific evidence” with “critical thinking.”
Jerry Pierce is managing editor of the Southern Baptist TEXAN, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.