I would say it's political satire, but in the Lone Star State, really, what's the difference?

27 July 2012

SBOE=SOL | An Education System in Crisis

The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) is an utter disgrace not only to our state but to our country. Every Texas citizen — indeed, every American citizen ought to be nothing short of furious with the currently abysmal state of affairs in which our public school system finds itself. We are desperately in need of a MAJOR overhaul in structure, organization and composition of the relevant governing bodies responsible for putting us where we are today. At the risk of sounding alarmist, we are on a collision course with disaster—some might say we're already there—and the longer we allow this broken runaway ship to continue forging full-speed ahead in the direction of the dark ages, the worse off we will all be as a result and the more difficult it will be to repair the damage. I don't feel it unreasonable to argue that education is easily the most pressing problem we face in Texas today, and our track record in recent decades for finding, funding and successfully implementing workable solutions is, at best, thoroughly disappointing and downright depressing. If this does not have you deeply, deeply concerned, well—it should. Our collective future depends on it. . .  

My father used to tell me growing up, "You are allowed to complain if—and only ifboth of the following conditions are met: (a) you can articulate the problem, and (b) you have solutions to offer." I always found these requirements terribly stifling, particularly in those teen years when one loves to complain about everything, but it turns out that was pretty good advice. So in honor of him, that's exactly what I plan to do here today.

The Problem

There are so very many problems with education in Texas, it is difficult to know where to begin. Just the size of it alone is pretty overwhelming. While the saying that everything is bigger here is clearly untrue, to which the intellectual capacity of our Governor will surely attest, it does seem to be the case with respect to our public school system. We house more schools than many small countries. But, perhaps surprisingly, size doesn't make my short list of contributing factors; even if it were a major factor, I see no realistic solution to unalterable geography, thus violating rule (b) above. Solutions. We're focused on solutions here. Besides, I do not have the time nor the patience nor the inclination to torture helpless readers by attempting to discuss every problematic feature here. So, I am going to discuss only one.

The biggest one. . . .


No, it's not teachers or standards or parents or funding or testing or students. It's not even Rick Perry (though he certainly isn't helping). In my estimation, easily the single biggest obstacle to improving our public school system is, ironically, the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE). . . . (<—and yes, I realize it isn't proper to capitalize the "O" in an acronym when it stands for "of," but this is how they do it and I haven't a clue why. My best guess would be either another agency called the SBE, or yet another point to add to my argument. But we'll get to that in a minute.) In case you're unfamiliar, don't worry—you aren't alone. It sometimes seems to be the best kept secret in Texas. Aside from the intermittent rounds of headlines that sweep the nation about them every decade or so when new textbook purchases are on the horizon, you don't often hear much about them — which I always find absolutely shocking given the substantial degree of power and influence they have over our schools.

But again, in case you're unfamiliar, here's a quick rundown: The SBOE consists of 15-member board elected on a district-wide basis to terms of four years; they meet a few times each year to discuss and decide upon public school matters concerning textbooks, curriculum, teaching standards, and oversight of the Permanent School Fund. You can find more about them on their website here. If you think that sounds like a mighty big job for 15 people, not to mention in only a few days each year, I agree; but that's a topic for another day. 

One would expect, or at least I do, that to be elected to a board that makes such crucial education decisions affecting nearly 5 million public school children, there would be some sort of criteria for candidates. Like a college education, for instance. However, one would be wrong. The sole criterion is simply this: get votes. Period. 

In sum, the SBOE consists of an overwhelming majority of radically conservative evangelical Christians, young-earth Creationists who are almost ALL devoutly anti-science, anti-sex-ed, anti-equality, and apparently, even anti-public education. Seriously. Which would all be well and good by me so long as they weren't proselytizing to my children and yours via public school textbooks. And so long as they weren't MANDATING that Texas teachers tell our children flat out lies and present them as "fact." 

But that is exactly what they are doing.

One writer puts it quite concisely here:
Don McLeroy, chairman of the Texas State Board of Education from 2007 to 2009, is a “young earth” creationist. He believes the earth is 6,000 years old, that human beings walked with dinosaurs, and that Noah’s Ark had a unique, multi-level construction that allowed it to house every species of animal, including the dinosaurs.
He has a right to his beliefs, but it’s his views on history that are problematic. McLeroy is part of a large and powerful movement determined to impose a thoroughly distorted, ultra-partisan, Christian nationalist version of US history on America’s public school students. And he has scored stunning successes.
If you missed what many have humorously (and sadly) dubbed the latest "casualties" in the "Texas Textbook Massacre" circa 2009-10, here's a quick review. Unlike most states who leave book selection up to individual districts, the SBOE requires that schools choose from a "board-approved" list; should a district decide to choose a book not on the list, they are entirely on their own in paying for them, and as we all know too well, those things aren't cheap.

So the textbook writers and publishers, well aware of our weirdly backward Texas system, know they have no choice but to write the books pandering to a very specific (and radical) subset of people in the first place. And that still is never good enough. A list of candidate books are first compiled in draft, and the board members put together what they call "a panel of experts" who make revisions, deletions and amendments however they see fit, then return the drafts to the board for final review and a vote, and publisher approval. Sounds legit, right? I wish it were. 

About this panel of "experts". . . Just last week the board considered the following three amendments, proposed by both Republicans and Democrats, and reported here by TFN, which outlines the bulk of the problem here: 
  • Reformers proposed that experts appointed to help them revise curriculum standards have at least a bachelor’s degree in a field related to the curriculum standards being revised. The current rule is that an expert need only have a bachelor’s degree in any field. A master’s or doctorate would be a better indicator of expertise, but surely it seems reasonable to expect that an “expert” in, for example, science have at least a bachelor’s degree in that field. But that was too much for the board’s creationists. “I don’t know why we’d want to limit ourselves,” said board member and evolution denier Terri Leo, R-Spring. The proposal failed on a tie vote.
  • Reformers then proposed that appointments to “expert” panels require at least a majority vote by the board. Board creationists, however, argued that the current rule — that appointment to an “expert” panel requires the consent of just two board members — “protects the rights of the minority.” “I don’t think we need to be in the business of vetting other people’s experts,” said board member David Bradley, R-Beaumont Buna. “It’s an uncomfortable situation.” Gail Lowe, R-Lampasas, even argued that requiring two board members to agree on a nominee was a sufficient check to stop “crazy people” from being appointed: “I can’t pick a crazy person because I’ve got to get another (board member) to agree.” The proposal for a majority vote for “experts” lost by one vote.
  • Reformers also wanted to rein in the board’s habit of making sometimes hundreds of amendments to proposed drafts of new curriculum standards late in the revision process without formal guidance from teachers, scholars or anyone else. But the board’s creationists defeated a motion requiring that proposed amendments to draft standards be filed at least 24 hours in advance so that all members would have a chance to study them and consult with scholars and other experts. Lowe and other creationists argued that such a requirement would “hamper” their work.
Is it just me or is this not, pardon my French, BAT-SHIT CRAZY?! We have a very tiny group of people, many of whom have prestigious credentials such as 'part-time copy editor' and 'college dropout' not just electing non-expert experts to panels, but actively editing, deleting, and amending textbooks unilaterally however they please. Excuse me for being "Elitist" (which is no doubt what they would call me), but I happen to think that a college dropout who calls evolution "hooey," says that pollution and global warming are "junk science," and who thinks all public schools are "evil" is maybe, just maybe, not the best guy we can find to take a red pen, sharpie and white-out to my child's biology textbook, which was originally written by a TEAM of actual biologists. . . or any other textbook for that matter, considering this kind of behavior:
His most dramatic rejection, however, was of an algebra textbook that he criticized for pictures, recipes (!), and references to women’s suffrage, biology and the Vietnam War. By law, the state board can reject textbooks only if they fail to cover established state curriculum standards, contain factual errors or do not meet manufacturing specifications. Knowing that his ideological bias was not a legally sufficient reason to reject the math textbook, Bradley tore the cover off (with some effort), stating, “Ladies and gentlemen, worthless binding. I reject this book.”(11)
To better illustrate the types of "amendments" and "revisions" we're talking about here, when reviewing social studies curriculum in 2010, the board voted to make changes such as removing Thomas Jefferson from the list of Enlightenment thinkers, removing any added emphasis on Mexican-American history, slavery and the separation of church and state, meanwhile "beefing up" the ideas that we were born a Christian nation, Ronald Reagan was a god, and the NRA has been a leading voice of reason working "solely for the public good." One board member suggested removing references to Martin Luther King, Jr., for Christ's sake...

As Gail Collins notes in her witty yet quietly disheartening book As Texas Goes... "Approval of textbooks was once held up over board concern that they were teaching children to be more loyal to their planet than to their country." Again, seriously. I couldn't make this up if I tried. (By the way, this book has an entire chapter devoted to the insider 4-1-1 on this issue, aptly titled "The Textbook Wars," in case anyone is interested. She's hilarious and it's a quick read, easily worth the purchase if only for this chapter.)

And now, I'll let some of the past and present Board members speak for themselves and make my argument for me, also courtesy of Gail Collins:
“One of the first real breaches of limited government was public education.”  — Don McLeroy, R-College Station, (BurkaBlog, Texas Monthly)
"What good does it do to put a Chinese story in an English book? So you really don't want Chinese books with a bunch of crazy Chinese words in them."         — Don McLeroy
"Sending children to public schools is like throwing them into the enemy's flames, even as the children of Israel threw their children to Moloch."                  — Cynthia Dunbar
Unfortunately, I could go on for days about this, but I think that's quite enough.

The Solutions


Solution #1.   For starters, in a state where everything from firefighter uniforms to fire hydrant color is decided upon by popular vote, why are we letting the SBOE members vote upon referendums aimed at regulating their wildly damaging, radically irrational behavior themselves? Is this not like rounding up all the bankers and asking them to vote on whether or not we should have fair banking regulation? These types of safeguards must come from outside of the SBOE. It's absurd to submit it directly to them for consideration. Let it be a matter for the Texas House or Senate or anyone besides the people it's meant to reign in. If that violates our Constitution, then let's amend it. We do that about twice a week anyway.

Solution #2.   Either change the term limits to two years rather than four, or keep them at four but stop staggering them so that they always coincide with presidential elections, since that is apparently the only time Texans get off their couches and into a voting booth.

Solution #3.   New Rule: If you do not have a degree in education, you cannot be elected to the Curriculum Committee.

Solution #4.   New Rule: If you do not have a degree in finance, you cannot be elected to the Education Finance Committee.

Solution #5.   New Rule: If you have ever said anything even remotely akin to "Public institutions of education are subtle tools of perversion implemented by the Devil to poison the minds of our children" (more awesomeness from former SBOE Chair Cynthia Dunbar) then you are not — I repeat NOT —allowed to serve on the State Board of [Public] Education.

Here's what the Texas Constitution has to say about it:  
"A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools."
Particularly in reference to the reasoning offered for Solution #5, the SBOE, as it stands, is in direct violation of the Constitution and not living up to its duties.

They do, however, align perfectly with their respective political base. Though many of us have known this for years, the Republican Party of Texas has recently taken the unusual step of formally and publicly announcing their continued commitment to irrationality and the decimation of our public school system by calling for the eradication of critical thought from public education. Again, SERIOUSLY. If you are in a state of disbelief that they would do such a thing, trust me —I am with you. But allow me to share with you a direct quote taken from the official 2012 GOP platform declaration in the section addressing education:
Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.
So, in case there were any prior misconceptions that the argument I've presented here is merely the product of "liberal bias" or "political spin," or that I have somehow misrepresented the reality of the situation in the interest of serving some personal, political or social agenda, I hope we can now safely put that false presumption to bed. The parallels drawn between the Republican base, their friends at the SBOE, and the deliberate denigration and degradation of the very institution of public education in Texas are not imagined and they have nothing whatsoever to do with partisan conjecture. These relationships are real, they are dangerous, and they must be acknowledged.

As I said before, if you do not find all of this deeply, deeply troubling—so much so that you are willing to actually do something about it—then, as far as I'm concerned, (a) you effectively forfeit your right to complain about it, or anything else that requires active citizen participation; and (b) you are part of the problem.

Incidentally, we have a very unique opportunity coming up in November. Because of last year's Census and subsequent redistricting to adjust for population changes, all 15 seats on the Board are up for grabs. And since it's a presidential election year, we'll at least have a better shot at getting something resembling a balance... It is still Texas, though, so it will undoubtedly have an artificial but heavy lean to the right (waaaaaay right), but I guess that's better than nothing. 

To those of you that are maybe just hearing about this for the first time and would like to keep up with what's happening, the Texas Freedom Network, started by ex-Gov. Ann Richards daughter specifically to combat the "crazy," does an amazing job of keeping up with SBOE happenings. They also have a tool to sign-up for e-mail reminders when Board elections are coming up, among other relevant and helpful things. You can find it here.

The nonprofit group Teach Them Science has by far the best breakdown of current Board members that I've found to date, listing detailed background info, beliefs, quotes, stats, pics, voting histories and various interesting tidbits about all 15 of the members, along with a neat little tool at the top of the page to type in your zip to see whose district you're in. Check it out here.

Whether of not you care to hear anymore about the SBOE anytime soon, I promise, you will. There is a blockbuster expose-style documentary about them coming soon to a theater near you. Here's a clip from that film below, followed by a pretty fantastic interview with Don McLeroy on the Colbert Report last month, in case you missed my inaugural post.

But before I go, let me reiterate that unlike this year, most SBOE elections happen in off-years and with little to no press coverage. They have the lowest voter turnout of any state-wide office — which means that if absolutely nowhere else, even a handful of votes matters. If you are reading my post now, odds are you are a fellow student; which tells me that even if you loathe politics and government, there is likely some part of you that does value a quality education. VOTE. It matters.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Something to add? Something to ask? The floor is now yours... Talk to me!