In quest to update, state puts social studies texts to the test; Educators brace for controversy as proposed material is reviewed

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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“History repeats itself,” Karl Marx famously wrote. “First as tragedy, second as farce.”

He might as well have added: Third as a high school textbook.

Once a decade, Texas adopts new social studies texts for its schools. The politically charged process is upon us again, and the books up for approval are now available for public scrutiny. In the coming months, they’re certain to receive it.

“Every time we adopt textbooks it’s controversial, but we think this year will be particularly so,” said Cheryl Wright, director of social studies at the Texas Education Agency.

The books are available at North Texas’ two education service centers, one in Richardson and one in Fort Worth. Visitors can view the books there or check them out for 10 days at a time. They will be available through November.

The books were supposed to have been available for public review in February. But state officials gave publishers an extension after Sept. 11 so they could include more recent events.

In the two weeks the books have been available locally, a slow but steady stream of teachers and school administrators has dropped in, usually one or two a day. After the adoption process is completed this fall, it will be up to individual school districts to determine which of the approved books end up in their classrooms.

Private schools and home-school parents also have stopped at the second-floor back room at the Richardson center, where the books are stacked. And textbook publishers have sent in employees to check out what competing publishers are offering.

But the closest examiners of the textbooks are likely to be conservative activists who plan to check the textbooks for bias. They say some books are anti-American, anti-Christian and anti-conservative. Conservatives examine books in most subject areas, but social studies texts have historically gotten more scrutiny because history and economics are inherently more political than, say, physics.

“We have hundreds of people who want to look at these textbooks and make sure they’re presenting our children with accurate information,” said Peggy Venable, state director of Citizens for a Sound Economy. “We don’t want them presenting hypotheses and theories as fact.”

Nationally, liberal activists have also been critical of history textbooks, saying they often minimize painful or negative elements of American history. But they have not been active in Texas.

The importance of Texas’ textbook approval process goes beyond the state’s borders. Because Texas is such a large market, books approved here are almost guaranteed a measure of financial success and are often shopped to schools elsewhere. Publishers often create special “Texas editions” of their products, hiring Texas teachers as consultants to create texts with an extra emphasis on Texas facts.

In all, 115 social studies books have been submitted for approval. The State Board of Education is not required to adopt or reject any set percentage of the books, and in previous years, nearly all of the books have been adopted.

In the coming months, state officials will designate teams to search the books for factual errors and to determine how closely each textbook follows the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, the state curriculum standards on which future students will be tested.

Meanwhile, interested members of the public will pore over the books for themselves.

“There is enormous bias in these books, passages favorable to Democrats and unfavorable to Republicans,” said Bill Ames, a Dallas retiree who is examining U.S. government texts. He said one textbook he just completed had more than 100 examples of bias.

An alliance of conservative organizations, led by Ms. Venable’s Citizens for a Sound Economy, has assembled more than 200 Texans to examine social studies textbooks. They, and any other interested parties, will present their findings at three public hearings scheduled in July, August and September.

The state board is to vote on which to adopt in November.

The Legislature attempted to take away much of the state board’s powers over textbook review in 1995. Tired of years of fights over topics such as evolution and sex education, lawmakers passed a bill saying the board could reject textbooks only if they were manufactured poorly, contained factual errors or did not cover the state curriculum standards. Power to select textbooks was shifted primarily to local school districts.

That shift is one of the reasons a prominent participant in previous textbook battles, Educational Research Analysts of Longview, no longer takes part in state public hearings.

“We’re going to focus on the district end of the process,” said Neal Frey, senior textbook analyst for the group, led by longtime activists Mel and Norma Gabler. “That’ll get under way in a serious way after New Year’s.”

But last year, conservatives won a state battle over science textbooks that they and others say could open the door to more political wrangling. The board, voting along ideological lines, rejected an environmental science textbook after conservatives called it un-American and anti-Christian in a series of public hearings.

Critics said the board overstepped its bounds by saying the book’s alleged bias was serious enough to count as a factual error. But conservatives said the move got publishers to listen to their concerns. Along with the one book that was rejected, two other publishers agreed to changes in their texts after complaints at public hearings.

“After that meeting [when the science textbook was rejected], my phone started ringing off the hook,” Ms. Venable said. “It was textbook publishers calling saying they want to meet with me. And they weren’t science publishers. They said, ‘We’re social studies publishers, and we want to meet with you for next year.’ “