We Are Not Defeated

By Terri Burke, ACLU of Texas Executive Director

(Take Action: Reform the Texas State Board of Education)

What a fascinating four days we had last week to watch the power of extremists in Texas. Although a substantial majority of the 206 speakers Wednesday opposed the state board of education’s proposed social studies TEKS (curriculum standards), in the end Republican moderates Patricia Hardy and Bob Craig and Geraldine Miller were afraid to cross the fringe right and the standards passed mostly on 9 to 5 votes (Miller absented herself from voting). I say “afraid” because Craig actually made the motion to delay the vote; Hardy repeatedly tried to craft amendments to address some historians’ concerns; and Miller ultimately walked on the two most important votes: the delay vote and the final vote. Former chairman (and dentist) Don McLeroy spent most of his time outside the meeting room, huddled with ideologically driven Liberty Legal and Texas Eagle Forum folks, who, it became obvious, were the authors of all of his amendments: McLeroy couldn’t explain his amendments, stuttering and rambling in response to questions. There were impassioned speeches about American exceptionalism (I liked Reagan’s “city on a hill” better), about the founding fathers and religion, and of course, the now popular debate (maybe only in Texas) about “constitutional republic” versus “democratic society. ” Texas school children will be protected from that term until they get to college – if they get in.

ACLU of Texas Executive Director Terri Burke testifies before the Texas State Board of Education
ACLU of Texas Executive Director Terri Burke testifies before the Texas State Board of Education

We are not defeated, however. With a number of legislators outraged at these shenanigans – dentists and real estate salesmen pretending to be historians – and the criticisms of one former and the current U.S. Secretary of Education, there is steam for pushing the engines of change. And, with the current economic situation in Texas, a projected $18 to $20 billion state budget deficit, it is unlikely this curriculum will see a textbook any time soon. So, in fact, we may have lost only a skirmish. November holds out the possibility of new faces for the board. McLeroy and Miller won’t be returning to the board as they were defeated in their respective primaries in March by people who seem to understand the appropriate role of the SBOE. Neither face Democratic opposition in November. Cynthia Dunbar did not run for re-election and both the Republican and Democratic candidates for her seat appear to be more sensible and Ken “I’m so maligned” Mercer faces a strong opponent.

In the meantime, working with our coalition partners, we will move forward to push a number of legislative options for revamping the mission and responsibilities of the board. And an editorial in Wednesday’s Dallas Morning News (one of the state’s more conservative newspapers), although demeaning the ACLU, suggested yet another twist: demand that the new board revise the standards when they take office next year. See the recommendations we included in our report, “The Texas State Board of Education: A Case of Abuse of Power.”

Entire State Should Take Note of Mishandled KeyPoint Report

By Matt Simpson, ACLU of Texas Policy Strategist

Officials around the state should take a careful look at the Austin Police Department’s (APD) and the City of Austin’s handling of a report in the Nathaniel Sanders II investigation as an example of the damage that can be done when officer-involved shooting investigations lack transparency.

Sanders, 18, was shot and killed by an APD officer on May 11, 2009. Though the officer was cleared criminally and his actions deemed justified by police, information subsequently made public has revealed a biased investigation. More recently a report by KeyPoint Government Solutions (PDF), a firm hired by the city itself to conduct an independent review, reached conclusions that were vastly different than those reached by APD, including calling the officer’s actions “reckless.”

And just as the KeyPoint controversy was erupting, another large police department, Fort Worth PD, had an officer-involved shooting incident of its own when one of its officers shot and killed a 21-year-old man earlier this month.

Fort Worth and law enforcement across the state of Texas can learn a lesson from the Sanders shooting: a single incident of failing to provide appropriate transparency and accountability can undermine years of work building trust between law enforcement and the communities served. When communities do not trust their police force, crimes go unreported and witnesses do not come forward. This endangers us all.

Much of the report and its findings was withheld and only became public when it was leaked to the media. City Attorney David Smith has chosen to retire early from city government following details of his obstruction of transparency becoming public.

Good intentions are not enough, Fort Worth Police Department and the City of Fort Worth should learn from the poor example presented by Austin’s handling of the KeyPoint report. Failing to address community concerns about police use of force can undermine public trust, which could fundamentally undermine public safety.

Clearly there is a lesson here for City of Fort Worth and the City of Austin. But there is a larger lesson for the rest of Texas: accountability, transparency and community engagement are not principles to be turned on and off. A full-time commitment to these principles is the only way to build trust between law enforcement and a community.

The issues raised by the Sanders investigation illustrate the statewide need for stronger transparency and accountability policies that ensure unclear policies do not undermine accountability and transparency.

The SBOE Puts On a Show

By Terri Burke, ACLU of Texas Executive Director

There was a time when many of us thought the cheapest, best live theater in Texas was in the Pink Granite building at the end of Congress Ave. in Austin.

No more.

It’s the State Board of Ed. If you’re not attending – or at least watching – its hearings on the proposed new social studies curriculum standards, you must already be vacationing in the mountains of Colorado with no Internet.

The highlight, or should I say lowlight, of yesterday’s 13 or more hours of public testimony (I got to speak in hour 12) was the speaker who told us that Texas history curriculum should teach “that slavery was created by fallen angels.” Chairwoman Gail Lowe didn’t reprimand the speaker as she had earlier complained about T-shirts worn by a group of students. The fronts of the T-shirts were innocuous enough, “Save our History” but the wording on the backs offended the Chairwoman: “Students for a smarter state board of education now” ?????

Out of the 206 registered speakers, my rough count showed a good 60 percent spoke against the proposed standards or asked the board to delay the vote to revise them. And that doesn’t count the legislators and players from the national stage who showed up.

Bush-era Education Secretary and former Houston school superintendent Rod Paige told the board early Wednesday morning, “What students are taught should not be the handmaiden of political ideology.”

They heard, too, from Benjamin Todd Jealous, the national president of the NAACP, who said that children need to learn the “whole truth, not half truths.” He said the standards threaten students’ ability to compete on APs and SATs.

The room had thinned out dramatically at 9:45 p.m. when finally I was called to speak and by then they had changed the rules to strictly limit questioning of speakers. So, I was up and out in the allotted three minutes. I delivered a letter and a copy of our report, “Texas State Board of Education: A Case of Abuse of Power.”

Part of the timing problem stemmed from the latitude the board granted testifiers early in the day. There was an emotional plea for more attention to Davy Crockett, who to my knowledge, is in no danger of being diminished in Texas history texts

Considering this was a discussion of social studies, few of us understood the relevance of a rambling account of a distraught school child who didn’t get to sing her favorite song (Jesus Loves Me) in her first grade classroom. Obviously her teacher had not been educated by the ACLU of Texas about the Constitution’s freedom of religious expression clause. We are available to help.

The last speaker to really get questioned had come to warn us of the impending Islamic takeover of America, again not particularly relevant to the issue at hand.

When a critic noted the state has few standards for service on the State Board of Education, including no educational requirements for the Commissioner of Education, Board Member David Bradley of Beaumont asked: “So, should the head of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission be a drunk?” My response would have been, “No, but the top educator in our state should be educated.”

These people have our children’s future in their hands.

Their final vote is Friday.

P.S. For those of you on Twitter, make your voice heard and message the following to the Texas Education Agency: @teainfo Do right by TX kids & public school kids everywhere. Reject distorted Social Studies curriculum changes