Take the politics out and put the teachers back in – that was the message Rita Haecker, president of the Texas State Teachers Association, delivered to the Mexican American Legislative caucus in Austin on Wednesday. The caucus, 44 members of the Texas House of Representatives, held a day-long session to hear concerns about the new social studies standards written by the state board of education (SBOE).
The standards, preliminarily approved by the SBOE on March 12, sparked a controversy that has reached far beyond Texas borders. Led by a powerful bloc of conservative members, the board made a series of changes to the curriculum that critics deride as a right-wing ideological assault on the state’s public schools.
Specifically, they argue that the standards skimp on historical contributions by minorities, trumpet an overtly Christian perspective, and aggressively promote conservative political figures and “American exceptionalism.”
Because Texas is the largest purchasers of textbooks nationally, the changes, if approved, could be felt across the country.
With the standards due for final approval on May 21, the Mexican American Legislative caucus invited interested parties, including academics, educators, and publishing groups to testify about the changes. Although the committee cannot take any specific action to derail the revisions, members hoped that the profound concerns raised during the meeting will help build public opposition.
Throughout the process, TSTA President Haecker and others repeatedly spoke out against the SBOE’s enormous power in rewriting the standards and, by extension, social studies textbooks.
“The ultra-conservative members of the board have a narrow ideological view that not only ignores history but also ignores the changing world,” Haecker told the committee on Wednesday.
For example, Haecker said, these members “are constantly painting Hispanics in negative terms as foreigners and illegal immigrants, and they are discounting the roles of African Americans as well.”
Many historians agree. In a joint letter to the SBOE on April 13, a group of Texas history professors accused the board of “distorting the historical record and the functioning of American society.”
Don McLeroy, outgoing board member and leader of the conservative bloc, believes the revisions are unpopular merely “because they challenge the ideology of the left … which is diametrically opposed to the our founding principles.”
With the final approval date looming, however, opponents of the standards are urging lawmakers to ask the board to start over and implement a more inclusive review process.
“We must develop a system,” Haecker said, “ that is based on the best thinking of our teachers and scholars, not the small political muscle of a small group of people.”