Texas SBOE’s curriculum changes stir controversy

Posted on 27 May 2010 at 5:43pm
By Tammye Nash | Senior Editor nash@dallasvoice.com

Activist criticizes standards for ignoring LGBT community; says board is trying to impose religious view on schools

REMEMBERING THE PAST | State Board of Education member Mary Helen Berlanga who voted against the new, more conservative social studies curriculum, decorated her desk with signage of past minority discrimination. (Jack Plunkett/Associated Press)

Changes to the public school social studies curriculum approved May 21 by the Texas State Board of Education have set off a wave of anger and controversy across the state, including among activists who say the standards completely ignore Texas’ LGBT community.

"The words sexual orientation, gender identity, LGBT — they don’t appear [in the standards] anywhere at all," said Randall Terrell, political director for Equality Texas. "It doesn’t mention any LGBT role models. There’s no reference to the LGBT civil rights battles or to LGBT historical figures or leaders. It doesn’t mention any of the cultural problems that LGBT kids can face. They just didn’t deal with the LGBT world at all."

Terrell said that the fact that the social studies curriculum includes the topics of sociology, psychology and history — all subjects that would easily lend themselves to discussion of the LGBT community, its history, its struggles and the unique problems LGBT people can face.

"If you aren’t going to address these issues in the topics where they are relevant, where do you discuss them?" he said.

Terrell was one of several people who spoke during the SBOE’s May 19 public hearing on the new standards. He said an intern for Equality Texas was among those who spoke, along with at least two members of Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

Representatives of other interests groups were also on hand to protest the revisions, Terrell said.

"Some of the SBOE’s proposals are just bat-shit crazy," Terrell said of the list of revisions the board considered. "They want this to be a theocracy, based on religious law, but with their own personal version of religion. And it’s incredibly narrow.

"There’s nothing in this about being for the benefit of the kids. It’s all definitely to perpetuate their world view, their religious views," he said.

Besides the complete lack of attention to any LGBT-related issue, Terrell said, the board approved "a lot of other crap" intended specifically to promote an ultra-conservative point of view.
"According to them, teachers can no longer describe this country as a ‘constitutional democracy,’ because they don’t want anyone using the word ‘Democrat.’ Thomas Jefferson has been taken out of the list of leaders of the enlightenment because he created the phrase ‘separation of church and state,’ and they think this should be a theocracy," Terrell said.

Terrell presented his comments and a 22-page document at the public hearing detailing the many revisions with which Equality Texas takes issue.

Among them were a requirement that sixth graders "identify and describe the effect of increasing government regulation and taxation on economic development and business planning" and "define a multicultural society and consider both the positive and negative qualities of multiculturalism."

"For years, one culture, one ethnicity, one tradition was favored in Texas despite this state’s history of always having been a multi-ethnic, multicultural society.

When the SBOE implies that a diversity of cultures coexisting and mutually enriching one another could possibly be a negative thing, this board reflects an ethnocentrism that is entirely inappropriate in today’s world," Terrell said in prepared comments.

The New York Times, in a recent editorial, criticized the new standards for requiring students to examine why the founding fathers protected religious freedom and how that approach contrasts with "separation of church and state," and for requiring students to "evaluate efforts by global organizations to undermine the U.S. sovereignty" and to analyze the "unintended consequences" of such programs as the Great Society and affirmative action.

But, the Times editorial noted, social conservatives on the SBOE did back down from "a few of their most outrageous efforts to tilt the state’s social studies curriculum," such as a proposal that President Obama always be referred to as "Barack Hussein Obama" and to rename the "slave trade" as the "Atlantic triangular trade."

Rita Haecker, president of the Texas State Teachers Association, is among those who have criticized the SBOE’s power over curriculum. She told the School Library Journal that "ultra-conservative" members of the state board have "a narrow ideological view that not only ignores history but also ignores the changing world."

She said SBOE members are "constantly painting Hispanics in negative terms as foreigners and illegal immigrants, and they are discounting the roles of African Americans as well."

And a group of Texas history professors wrote a joint letter to the SBOE, accusing board members of "distorting the historical record and the functioning of American society."

The controversy has seeped outside the borders of the Lone Star State, due primarily to the huge influence Texas standards can have on textbooks used elsewhere. Because Texas has such a large number of students and therefore spends so much money on textbooks, companies that publish those textbooks often base their offerings on what Texas decrees, and other states are left with few other choices.

But lawmakers in California, which orders almost as many textbooks as Texas and so has just as much pull with the publishers, have refused to give in to the demands of the Texas SBOE. California senators, in fact, recently introduced legislation to ban any of the new Texas standards from being included in California textbooks.   

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 28, 2010.

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