AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas education officials may vote this week to have outside experts check for factual errors in textbooks used in its public schools, a small but key concession that could soften longstanding ideological fights over how history, science and religion are taught across America’s second-largest state.
The proposed tweak to Board of Education rules follows a Houston mother complaining last month that a geography book used by her 15-year-old son referred to slaves as “workers.” The publisher, McGraw-Hill Education, subsequently apologized and moved to make immediate modifications.
Texas has more than 5 million students, a market so large that publishers making edits to meet the state’s curriculum can affect what’s prepared for other states.
But controversies have erupted in recent years when conservative board members backed deemphasizing climate change and the theory of evolution in science textbooks, while seeking to approve history and social studies materials that critics said overstated Moses’ importance on America’s Founding Fathers.
The board — currently 10 Republicans and five Democrats — begins meeting Wednesday, the same day Republican member Thomas Ratliff said he plans to propose that university academics check board-sanctioned books to avoid future mistakes.
Approved books currently are scrutinized by citizen review panels whose members are nominated by board members.
“The problem is you get some political ideologues, like some of my colleagues like to appoint, instead of people who can think for themselves and not be told what to think,” said Ratliff, from Mount Pleasant in East Texas.
If the measure passes Wednesday, final approve would come in a potentially less contentious vote Friday.
Ratliff said his proposal wouldn’t alter the content of the books, only seek to prevent factual errors. But that still could be a major change because some board members have long been reticent of having university professors check books whose approval is up to the board.
“I typically always suspect (Ratliff’s) motives given his difficult relationship with the conservative membership on the board,” said David Bradley, a Republican member from the Gulf Coast city of Beaumont.
Ratliff said the changes should win approval: “I wouldn’t be setting myself up to bring a knife to a Howitzer fight,” he said.
The Board of Education also sets curriculum standards for Texas classrooms. In years past, its social conservatives united to approve social studies curriculums in which children learned that the words “separation of church and state” were not in the Constitution and were asked to evaluate whether the United Nations undermines U.S. sovereignty.
The curriculum process wouldn’t change under Ratliff’s proposal. Still, Bradley said even tweaking textbook reviews won’t be easy.
“We’re always going to be bitterly divided on what constitutes an expert,” Bradley said. “There are members on the board that would define Bernie Sanders as a foreign policy expert and there are those of us who would vehemently oppose that.”