State Board of Education – Know Your Candidates

By Gislaine Williams
Statewide Advocacy Coordinator

Did you know that all 15 seats on the State Board of Education (SBOE) are up for election this year?

The SBOE is responsible for establishing curriculum standards and reviewing and approving textbooks for Texas public schools. In the past, the SBOE has used this power to push religious and political agendas, ignoring its basic constitutional responsibility to uphold separation between church and state.

You have the power to change that by electing a board that protects the Constitution and puts children before ideology.

Take the first step by learning more about the candidates running in your district. What would be their answers to these questions?

• What role should religion play in setting curriculum standards?
• What standards do you support for the writing & adoption of TEKS?
• Now that we have state-authorized Bible courses, what other religious traditions should be taught?
• How do you balance your personal faith convictions with your role as a public servant?
• What standards do you support for the writing & adoption of TEKS?
• What, if anything, should be done to protect minority faiths in the classrooms?

Find out your district here.

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Continue reading State Board of Education – Know Your Candidates

Religion in Public Schools: Is the Bible off limits in the classroom?

By Rebecca Robertson
Director of Public Policy and Advocacy

If you want to get Texans riled up, start a conversation about teaching the Bible in public schools!  Feelings run high, and everyone has an opinion.  We wish we could say there are clear rules to guide educators when it comes to teaching the Bible, but thanks to inaction by Texas legislators and the State Board of Education, the situation is murkier than it needs to be.

As we’ve seen, there is a constitutional prohibition on government-run schools foisting a particular religious viewpoint on school children.  That rule protects the rights of parents and students to decide for themselves whether and how to worship.  In keeping with this rule, public schools can teach about the Bible if they do so in an objective and academic manner rather than a religious one.  For example, it’s okay for teachers to focus on the historical or literary import of the Bible.  Conversely, schools must avoid conveying any particular religious message or promoting a particular sectarian interpretation of the Bible.

In 2007, Texas enacted a law permitting public schools to offer an elective Bible course to ninth- through 12th-grade students.  The law specifies that the course must comply with the Constitution and that teachers should receive training designed, in part, to help them teach the course in a manner that is constitutional.   So far, so good, right?

The problem is that the legislature has declined to appropriate any money for teacher training, and the State Board of Education has refused to write any curriculum standards specifically for the course.  The result is that schools that offer the Bible elective have very little guidance about how to do it right.

Because any Bible course is, by definition, about religion, schools and teachers need to be careful not to infringe on students’ religious liberty.  If Texas legislators and the State Board of Education really care about religious liberty, they’ll take steps to ensure that any Bible curriculum taught in Texas public schools stays within constitutional bounds. That won’t end the controversy over teaching the Bible, of course, but at least we’d all know the ground rules!

Breaking Schools’ Rules: Disproportionate Impact

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Communications Coordinator

Last week, we introduced a blog series dedicated to sharing information from the new Breaking Schools’ Rules report published by the Council of State Governments Justice Center and Texas A & M. This edition shares some shocking statistics regarding disproportionate use of harsh discipline on children of color and children with special needs. 

Racial Disparities

It is not news that school discipline disproportionately impacts students of color. But, before this study, possible explanations for this disparity included that African Americans may disproportionately come from low-income households, are overrepresented among special education students, or may miss more school than other races.  This study controlled for these factors, showing that race is, in fact, a predictive factor for whether a student will be disciplined.   What’s more, the majority of the punishments were discretionary. The numbers are astonishing:

  •    75% of African Americans (83% for males) between seventh and twelfth grades were involved in the school disciplinary system, compared to 64.8% for Hispanic students and 46.9% for white students.
  •    A much larger percentage of African American (26.2%) and Hispanic (18%) students were placed in out-of-school suspensions for their first violation than were whites (9.9%).
  •    About one-fourth of African American students (25.7%) had more than 11 discretionary disciplinary actions, compared to about one-fifth of Hispanic students (18.1%) and less than one-tenth of white students (9.5%).


Special Education Disparities

Similarly to racial disparities in discipline, nearly all of the suspensions or expulsions of special education students (98.1%) resulted from a discretionary decision by a school official—not a mandatory removal under state law.  Certain disabilities—like emotional disturbance—correlated with increased incidents of discipline.

  •   74.6% of the students who qualified for special education services were suspended or expelled at least once between their seventh-and twelfth-grade school years.
  •    Whereas nine out of ten students identified as emotionally disturbed were removed from the classroom at least once because of a violation of their local code of conduct, just a little more than one in three (37%) of the students with a disability such as autism or mental retardation were similarly involved in the disciplinary system.
  • Approximately half (48.4%) of the students coded as having an emotional disturbance were suspended or expelled 11 or more times.

This study leaves no room to doubt that both children of color and children who qualify for special education services are disciplined at a higher rate than their counterparts.  The discriminatory impacts of these actions need to be addressed in order to ensure that all children can learn in a supportive environment. Please visit Educate, Don’t Incarcerate to find out what you can do to help. Next Edition:  Abuse of discretionary expulsion offenses

Please, For the Sake of Texas’ Future!

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Communications Coordinator

The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) is considering adopting supplemental science materials for Texas’ public schools.  If some SBOE members get their way, these materials will include intelligent design.  For the sake of our children and our Constitution, we urge the SBOE to uphold the separation of church and state.

Today, our Director of Public Policy and Advocacy, Rebecca Robertson, testified to the SBOE, arguing that public school science textbooks are not the place to try to advance political and religious agendas.  She argued that teaching intelligent design as science would not only violate the separation of church and state, but would also put Texas school districts at risk of facing expensive litigation, would lower our quality of education, and would hurt Texas’ economy.  Read her testimony here.

Ghosts of SBOEs Past

By Frank Knaack
Associate Director for Policy and Advocacy

Here we go again… Next week the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) will consider the adoption of supplemental science materials for Texas’ public schools.  You may wonder why this is a problem.  Well, in 2009 some members of the SBOE succeeded in injecting creationist/intelligent design arguments into the science standards, and the materials being considered now were developed for these flawed standards. 

The separation of church and state is a cornerstone of our constitutional system, but that has not stopped some SBOE members from ignoring recognized experts and injecting their ideological beliefs into public school classrooms across the state.   Apparently, going against the constitution is not enough to stop this abuse of power at the expense of Texas’ children.  But, maybe the financial costs of approving unconstitutional materials will sway them.  The case below shows just how expensive it can get.

In 2004, the Dover Pennsylvania school board amended its biology curriculum to state that “[s]tudents will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design” (similar to the amendments added by the SBOE in 2009).  As could be expected, parents were outraged and they challenged the board’s decision in court (with the help of the ACLU of Pennsylvania).  In 2005, a George W. Bush appointed federal judge ruled in favor of the outraged parents. Judge John Jones ruled that “it is unconstitutional to teach ID [intelligent design] as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom.”  Because of its unconstitutional action, the Dover school district had to pay over $1,000,000 in legal fees (and that was after the parents’ attorneys agreed to waive their fees that would have cost the district an additional million dollars).  There is a lesson here.  How can SBOE members invite such litigation against already-strapped school districts just so they can achieve their personal ideological goals?  (Don’t forget that the Texas Legislature just passed a new budget with record cuts for public school education.)

Unfortunately, the double whammy of approving unconstitutional materials and incurring massive legal costs and has not deterred some SBOE members from their quest to have the government dictate religious beliefs to Texas children.   As the Texas Freedom Network pointed out, the newly appointed SBOE Chairwoman Barbara Cargill is determined to inject her personal ideological beliefs into the science materials next week.  This is not good news for Texas.

While we hope that the SBOE will do the right thing and follow the law, if history is any predictor, we have our doubts.  That is why we need your help.  Please contact your SBOE member and demand that the SBOE remove personal ideology from the curriculum and textbook review processes and instead follow the advice of biologists and other relevant experts.  Texas’ children deserve nothing less.

A Teacher’s Nightmare?

By Dotty Griffith
Public Education Director

A religion professor who also is a retired Methodist Church elder has taken an exhaustive look at the Bible curriculum being taught in Lubbock public schools in a report titled, “A TEACHER’S NIGHTMARE? The Lubbock Independent School District’s Bible Course.”

A.W. Martin, Professor of Religion Emeritus at Oklahoma City University who now lives in Lubbock, has closely examined the curriculum and supplemental text, The Bible in History and Literature (Greensboro, NC: National Council of Bible Curriculum in Public Schools [NCBCPS], 2007).

Martin concludes that the course does not fulfill state law requirements that the role of the Bible in history and literature be taught without favoring one religion over another. Instead of teaching the Bible in “an objective and academic manner,” the NCBCPS curriculum “recommends a substantial number of resources that have little academic merit and represent a bias that has no place in a public school classroom.”

He cites a recent study by Amanda Colleen Brown in the Baylor Law Review. She concluded that the material from the NCBCPS fails to satisfy all three prongs of the “Lemon Test,” which courts use to judge the Constitutionality of government involvement with religion: A statute or practice “must have a secular legislative purpose,” its main “effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion,” and “it must not foster an excessive entanglement with religion.”

Martin predicts that teachers will face serious difficulties in attempting to fulfill these objectives. He adds, “The teacher who takes the objectives seriously, even if the authors of the curriculum seem rather casual about them, will face at least a few sleepless hours while searching for supplementary materials and perhaps will have a few bad dreams if adequate resources cannot be easily found.”

He concludes the NCBCPS curriculum is a teacher’s nightmare and should cause bad dreams for school administrators and parents as well.

It’s Not Just Us Saying It

This week, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (an education think tank) released its State of State U.S. History Standards for 2011. How did Texas perform? Not well. The Fordham Institute concluded that Texas’ new Social Studies curriculum “combines a rigidly thematic and theory-based social studies structure with a politicized distortion of history. The result is both unwieldy and troubling, avoiding clear historical explanation while offering misrepresentations at every turn.”

As the ACLU of Texas documented last spring, Texas’ failing curriculum is the result of a process that allows members of the Texas State Board of Education to inject their personal political beliefs into the curriculum content. The Texas Legislature must take steps to ensure that educational experts, not ideologues, determine what ends up in our children’s classrooms!

Is There No End to the Costly Political Game the SBOE Keeps Playing?

By Frank Knaack
ACLU of Texas Legal Advocacy Coordinator

Today, the Texas State Board of Education boldly and clearly announced: we are not capable of placing the educational needs of Texas’ children above our need to further our personal political agendas.

Well, close enough.

The Board on Friday approved a resolution that singles out Islam for denigration. Add this to the list of the Board’s past abuses, as we documented in our report (PDF), and it is clear … the Board’s power over the curriculum content for Texas public schools must be removed. You can help by writing your legislators and demanding that scholars, not politicians, determine our children’s public school curriculum.

The ostensible purpose of the resolution adopted today was to ensure that Texas’ public school world history textbooks portray all religions in a fair and balanced manner. To achieve this, the majority of the Board felt it necessary to demonize Islam. This logic, as is often the case with the Board’s actions, defies reason. As if to further clarify the true political nature of this resolution, the Board voted down two sensible amendments.

First, the Board voted down an amendment that would have simply stated that the Board will reject any textbooks that ill-treat the world’s major religious groups by “demonizing or lionizing one or more of them over others … .” Second, the Board voted down an amendment that would have delayed the vote on this resolution until the Texas Education Agency could verify the claims of pro-Islam/anti-Christian bias past Texas textbooks. (If the majority truly believed there was an anti-Christian bias in Texas textbooks then what did they have to fear?)

As the failure of these sensible amendments makes clear, today’s vote was not about ensuring the fair and balanced treatment of world religions, but instead about scoring political points. The Board’s flagrant disregard for the educational well-being of Texas’ children is nothing less than shameful, and cannot stand. Help ensure that such actions do not happen again. Contact your legislator today!

Agreeing with the SBOE. Well, Sort of.

By Frank Knaack
ACLU of Texas Legal Advocacy Coordinator

Take Action: To put a halt once and for all to the Board’s abuses, we need your help! The ACLU of Texas and our coalition partners are pushing our legislators to strip the Board of its power over Texas public school curriculum development, and instead place control over curriculum where it belongs, in the hands of experts.

I never thought I would say this, but I could not agree more with the Texas State Board of Education. When the Board reconvenes this week, they will vote on a resolution that would send a clear signal to textbook publishers. Under the proposed resolution, the Board will:

“…look to reject future prejudicial Social Studies submissions that continue to offend Texas law with respect to the treatment of the world’s major religious groups … by demonizing or lionizing one or more of them over others … .”

Sound too good to be true? It is. While the Board’s words may sound inclusive, their actions have been anything but. For example, this resolution claims that some Texas Social Studies textbooks have had a “pro-Islamic/anti-Christian bias.” According to this resolution, the Christian Crusaders were unfairly labeled as “violent attackers,” or “invaders.” While the outdated, no-longer-in-use textbook over which this resolution expresses concern may have unfairly portrayed one group of people traveling from their land to another’s land for the purpose of gaining control of that land (I am not a historian), the concern over negatively painting one religion seems familiar. Oh yeah, it is similar to how the Board painted Muslims (and “Middle Easterners”/Palestinians) in the new Social Studies curriculum.

Throughout the new Social Studies curriculum, the only group specifically linked with “terrorism” is the Palestinians. This claim is not only subjective, but also attempts to equate Palestinians with “terrorism.” (This claim is made in the section discussing “radical Islamic fundamentalism.”) In addition, because the examples of bias against Christianity are drawn from outdated textbooks, the resolution justifies its relevancy by stating “more such discriminatory treatment of religion may occur as Middle Easterners buy into the U.S. public school textbook oligopoly, as they are now doing.” This resolution and the Social Studies curriculum both ignore the many religions practiced by “Middle Easterners”/Palestinians, including Christianity itself.

While the Board’s latest misuse of their power is regrettable, as we have documented, it is certainly not surprising. The timing of this resolution, as Abby Rapoport pointed out in the Texas Observer, is convenient for those Board members who need some last minute campaign contributions or want to rally their base. As we have seen with the protests a few blocks from Ground Zero or the (almost) Koran burning in Florida, jumping on the anti-Islam bandwagon is a great way to get media attention.

Even though it is important to address the Board’s latest shameful act, this toothless resolution will not impact the selection of Social Studies textbooks. But, the Board’s actions last May when they approved the new Social Studies curriculum most certainly will. You can help us by letting your legislators know that educational experts, not ideologues, should determine what ends up in our children’s textbooks!

The SBOE’s Alternate Universe

By Frank Knaack, ACLU of Texas Legal Advocacy Coordinator

The following could soon be overheard in a Texas public school near you:

“Today, children, we are going to learn how Senator Joseph McCarthy has been vindicated! … And later this week we will be studying the prominent role of religion in our government.”

Huh, what alternate universe am I living in? How could public school curriculum paint a one-sided picture of such a controversial figure? How could public school curriculum ignore the constitutional separation of church and state?

The answer: the majority on the Texas State Board of Education took it upon themselves to create a new history, one that weaves a narrow, ideologically driven historical narrative into Texas’ public school curriculum (this narrative also includes the Board’s own constitutional “modifications”). This new curriculum, adopted last month, was released Friday.

The new social studies curriculum attempts to morph highly contentious historical debates into universally accepted truths, and does so through the Board’s abuse of the power granted to it by the Texas legislature (see a PDF of our recent report, The Texas State Board of Education: A Case of Abuse of Power, for greater detail). The Board’s May meeting, where this curriculum was adopted, offered numerous examples of this abuse. Despite the fact that Board members personally selected the “experts” and review committee members appointed to update and recommend changes to the previous TEKS, Board members still felt the need to offer and accept a plethora of last minute amendments. Among the many factually questionable and/or ideologically-driven last-minute amendments approved by the Board was a requirement that students “evaluate efforts by global organizations to undermine U.S. sovereignty through the use of treaties.” Those Board members who voted for this amendment may want to check out the U.S. Constitution before this requirement makes it to the classroom. This is especially important given these members’ (stated) great reverence for our country’s Founders and our Constitution. For it was our Founders who wrote, in our Constitution, that “ … all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land.” (We stuck with one example because of our desire to keep this blog post below book length, which would be required to give these amendments, and the curriculum as a whole, the critique it deserves.)

By accepting these last minute amendments, the Board not only further clarified their agenda (it does not appear that ensuring the future for Texas’ children was anywhere near the top), but also made it impossible for the “experts” and review committee members to have the opportunity to review the amendments. (Let’s remember that it was the Board itself that established the process in the first place.)

Fortunately, all is not lost. While this flawed curriculum may have passed, it will not have any practical impact on Texas’ public school students until new textbooks are created to reflect this new history, a process many months in the making. It is also important to remember that while the Texas legislature may have granted the Board the authority to create the curriculum, it also has the power to revoke the Board’s authority over curriculum at any time. With a new legislative session quickly approaching, it is about time for the legislature to exercise their power by ensuring that only subject matter experts play a role in the development of curriculum for Texas’ public school students.

Stay tuned to the Liberty Blog to learn how you can take action to halt the Board’s abuses! And sign up to get Action Alert emails on the SBOE as well as other issues.