Guess Who's Coming to Your Classroom

On Friday, the Texas State Board of Education formally approved controversial changes to the state’s social studies curriculum, wrapping up a year-long process that caught nationwide attention.

The changes were adopted in a 9-5 vote, which split along party lines. Supporters believe the new standards merely reflect, in conservative board member Cynthia Dunbar’s words, that America is “a Christian land governed by Christian principles.”

Critics charge that the new standards skimp on historical contributions by minorities, trumpet an overtly Christian perspective, downplay the separation of church and state, and aggressively promote American “exceptionalism” and conservative political figures such as Newt Gingrich, Phyllis Schlafly and Senator Joseph McCarthy.

In addition to denouncing the revisions as right-wing propaganda, critics also ripped the process, which Rita Haecker, president of the Texas State Teachers Association, said deteriorated into a political and divisive spectacle.

“The circus-like efforts of right-wing board members,” Haecker said last month, “to impose their own religious and political beliefs on the public school curriculum have been and still are a national embarrassment.”

The standards will guide textbook purchases and classroom instruction over the next decade – and maybe not just in Texas. National publishers usually cater to its demands because the school board is probably the most influential in the country. Texas buys 48 million textbooks every year. No other state except California wields that sort of market clout.

But Jay Diskey, executive director of the Association of American Publishers’ School Division says fears of a Texas-style national social studies curriculum are overblown because publishers are more accustomed nowadays to producing customized textbooks for different states.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan offered mild criticism of the new standards saying “parents should be very wary of politicians designing curriculum.” Still, Duncan later told CNN he also doubted that there will be “large ripple effects around the country.”

But California isn’t taking any chances. A bill recently introduced in the state legislature seeks to prevent Texas-approved changes from seeping into the Golden State. Under the bill, the California Board of Education would be required to identify any of the Texas standards as part of its own review of public school textbooks.

Even if their reach is limited to Texas, will the new standards capsize social studies classrooms across the Lone Star state? Maybe not, says Kirk White, a middle school social studies teacher in Austin.

“Are there some things in there that don’t belong? Sure, but I hope teachers don’t buckle and interpret the language too narrowly,” White says. “If we have to talk more about our so-called  “Christian nation” in class, then let’s talk about it– the good and the bad. A good teacher will know how to take advantage of this situation.”