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The Texas Social Studies Debate Is Over, or Is It?

In case you missed it, another controversial chapter in the annals of the Texas board of education closed Friday. For the moment, at least.

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The elected state board, led by a bloc of staunch conservatives, approved a new set of social studies standards that will guide state testing and instructional materials for the coming decade. The action came in a series of strictly party-lines votes, with the exception of economics, where the 15-member board somehow managed to muster bipartisan unanimity.

To say the Texas effort has been controversial is an understatement. Leading conservatives on the board have said their goal has been to balance a perceived liberal bias in the state's existing standards. But Democrats on the board, as well as many outside observers, and even a majority of the educators tasked with helping to craft the new standards, instead say the panel's Republicans have muscled through a lot of amendments that inject their political and religious views into the classroom.

"I think we've corrected the imbalance we've had in the past and now have our curriculum headed straight down the middle," said Don McLeroy, one of the board's leading conservatives, according to a story in the Dallas Morning News.

Democratic board member Mary Helen Berlanga criticized the addition of "all these last-minute cut-and-paste proposals," the Morning News reported, while fellow Democrat Mavis Knight said the board "has made these standards political and had little academic discussion about what students need to learn."

Even U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued a statement on the action. Although his words seemed carefully chosen so as not to directly criticize the Texas board, it wasn't hard to read between the lines when he said politics should be kept out of curriculum debates.

"Parents should be very wary of politicians designing curriculum," he said.

Earlier last week, as I noted in a blog item the other day, former Education Secretary Rod Paige, a Republican who served in President Bush's cabinet, also weighed in.

"The history of our nation and the history of the state should not be handmaidens to carry political ideology for either party," Paige, a former superintendent in Houston, SEE ADD was quoted as saying by the San Antonio Express-News. He told the newspaper that the board appears to be too involved in establishing what details of history students should learn.

"Let history speak its authoritative voice through the qualified historians and educators," he said.

More than 200 amendments were considered last week, on top of several hundred more that were debated during two previous rounds of board discussion in January and March.

Looking ahead, a few news stories suggest this may not be the final word on the state's social studies standards.

The Dallas Morning News piece reports that some state Democratic lawmakers and other critics in Texas have said the board could revisit the standards next January, after two of the social conservative members who are being replaced by more moderate members take office. But most experts, the story continues, suggest that the board is unlikely to amend the new standards unless Democrat Bill White wins the governor's race. If he does, then the Democrat could appoint the board's chairman, the story explains, who controls the agenda and could put the issue back before the board.

White said on Saturday that that's exactly what would happen if he defeats incumbent Gov. Rick Perry in November.

"Obviously, I would pick a chair who would try to undo some of the damage that is being done as quickly as we can," he told the San Antonio Express-News.

But a spokeswoman for Gov. Perry, a Republican, said state board members are "independently elected officials, and the governor has no intention of getting involved in that process," the Express-News story reports.

Meanwhile, an editorial by the Austin American-Statesman points out that legislators don't actually have to provide any money for textbooks written to reflect the new standards.

"Clearly, [the legislature] has the right to decide whether to pay for textbooks that shouldn't be in the classroom," the editorial quotes state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, a Democrat on the House appropriations committee, as saying.

In fact, money problems in the Lone Star State are already likely to delay state adoption of new social studies textbooks. At the board meeting last week, members voted once again to postpone the purchase of new science textbooks and related instructional materials. Those materials are needed to reflect science standards the board approved in 2009.

Finally, some critics of the current state board have suggested it's time for the legislature to rein in the board's authority to write state standards. It's already taken other recent actions that reduce the board's role over instructional materials. Although the state board still has responsibility for adopting textbooks for use in Texas classrooms, measures approved last year hand the state education commissioner authority to develop a separate list of online instructional materials. For more on those changes, see this recent EdWeek story.

I'll close with a quote on last week's action by Republican board member David Bradley, who was unapologetic about the influence of politics on the process, which he argues is nothing new in Texas.

"We took our licks, we got outvoted," he said of the last time the standards were debated and approved in 1999, according to a story in the Associated Press. "Now it's 10-5 in the other direction. ... We're an elected body, this is a political process. Outside that, go find yourself a benevolent dictator."

Photo: Board member Mary Helen Berlanga shows her frustration at the many amendments under consideration during last week's meeting in Austin. Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman/AP

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