Texas school board hears from critics of social studies changes

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 2010

The Texas State Board of Education made final revisions to its social studies standards on Thursday, changes that likely mean students will spend less time studying the separation of church and state and more time studying alternatives to Social Security and Medicare.

The board has been meeting in Austin this week to review the standards, which many historians, liberal activists and politicians on both sides of the aisle have condemned as giving a conservative twist to history. The 15-member board will vote Friday on the entire set of standards.

Most of Thursday's changes were less drastic than those made earlier this year. Those included deemphasizing Thomas Jefferson, requiring students to study Jefferson Davis's inaugural address alongside Abraham Lincoln's, and saying that Sen. Joseph McCarthy was justified in his 1950s search for Communist infiltration in American society.

But some of the latest revisions were still hard-fought.

Students will now study "efforts by global organizations to undermine U.S. sovereignty," an addition late Thursday evening encouraged by board member Don McLeroy (R), who has put forward many of the most contentious changes.

"There's an effort to try to put us under a world court," McLeroy said.

He also persuaded the board to add a standard of studying the solvency of Social Security and Medicare.

Another one of the seven conservative board members, David Bradley (R), added a list of Confederate generals and officials to the list of topics that students must study. While the board voted to approve the change, one member said into a live microphone, "We're fighting the Civil War all over again."

The board met for more than 12 hours Wednesday to hear comments from 120 people, including former education secretary Rod Paige and NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous.

Paige, who was superintendent of Houston's schools before taking over the Education Department in President George W. Bush's first term, said the school board's decisions were doing damage to the state's education system. "We need the history of Texas to be reflected as it actually happened, not filtered through the lens of a political ideology," he said.

But McLeroy has argued that the revisions provide balance to a set of standards that did not initially paint America in a positive light. Both liberals and conservatives on the board have called the changes "political" -- but they have disagreed on whether that was a bad thing.

The standards are used to shape textbooks and standardized tests. The Texas textbook market is large enough that publishers have tailored books to meet the state's standards and then marketed them nationally. The publishers argue that technological advances have lessened Texas's influence, but many educators and activists aren't so sure.

"This is a development with national implications," Jealous said.

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