The Disloyal Opposition

They see conspiracies around every corner. They would rather lose than compromise. Their mean spiritedness knows no bounds. For the damage they’ve done to public schools in Texas, these five members of the State Board of Education deserve a failing grade.

December 1998By Comments

Robert Offutt, a San Antonio pediatric dentist, is one the fifteen members of the State Board of Education, a panel whose obscurity masks its importance: It determines what every public school student should learn in every subject. In September he was going through his handouts for the upcoming state board meeting when he came across last spring’s end-of-course examination for high school U.S. history, a statewide multiple-choice test that many school districts require students to pass to get credit. “I consider myself something of a history buff,” Offutt told me, “so I sat down at my kitchen table and took the test. I considered it a matter of pride to get all forty questions right. After I had answered twelve or thirteen, I had an epiphany: Almost none of the questions required any knowledge of history. If you can read a map or a graph or a political cartoon or a paragraph, you can pass the test without knowing any history. The first question had a map of the United States with dots representing major gold and silver discoveries. If you know north, south, east, and west, you can answer the question.”

Offutt gave me a copy of the test, and sure enough, you didn’t have to know much history. Suppose that you are asked when the Great Depression ended; given as your choices are: “the reconversion slumps,” “the Korean War,” “World War II,” and “recessions.” Presumably you would know the answer. Even if you had never heard of the Great Depression, however, you could look at the accompanying chart labeled “The U.S. Business Cycle 1925—1975” and see that the answer was World War II. Now, here’s a tougher one. What year was the greatest amount of farm acreage harvested: 1920, 1930, 1960, or 1970? I would have guessed 1920 on the theory that the soldiers had come back from the Great War but hadn’t moved to the cities yet. Wrong. Fortunately, there was a helpful graph with a telltale peak at 1930. One question that didn’t have a map or a graph asked what Jackie Robinson is best known for. These days some students might not know that he broke the color barrier in major league baseball, but in case anyone might be tempted to choose “helping found the United Negro College Fund” or “being selected as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations,” the question identifies Robinson as a Hall of Fame baseball player.

As a consumer of the public schools, with three children in grades seven, nine, and ten, I was dismayed by the history test but, alas, not entirely surprised. I have seen my own children get little exposure to American history. In elementary school, they learned about Martin Luther King, Jr., but not about slavery, about Indian customs but not about Indian wars, and about acid rain but not about the Industrial Revolution. Later, instead of being assigned book reports, they were asked to create dioramas of their favorite scenes. Now, at two of my children’s schools, each class meets every other day for ninety minutes. Their teachers are good, but no teacher can hold the attention of a roomful of teenagers for an hour and a half. As a result, a sizable chunk of class time is spent doing homework. Grades go up under this type of schedule—nobody gets a zero for failing to turn in homework—but the amount of material learned goes down.

So Offutt seems to be the right man in the right place, someone with the insight and the ability to change public education in Texas for the better. He is smart, committed to tougher academic standards, and commands a following on the board. From this you might conclude that he is regarded as a positive force for education in Texas and, since he is a Republican, that he is allied with Governor George W. Bush, who has made raising educational standards his number one priority.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Offutt is the leader of a five-member faction on the board that since 1995 has formed a permanent and intractable opposition to Bush, to his education reforms, to his appointed education commissioner, Mike Moses, to the Texas Education Agency, which Moses heads, and to any colleague who doesn’t fit their notions of what a conservative ought to be. In the process, this faction has transformed a board that used to make news only when textbook critics showed up to protest the teaching of evolution or sex education into the most divided, most embattled, most uproarious political body in Texas. It comprises nine Republicans and six Democrats elected from districts across the state, but the real division separates the five dissidents, all of them Republicans, from everybody else. The minority bloc has opposed the bipartisan majority on every significant educational issue that falls within the board’s jurisdiction: curriculum, textbooks, federal grants, investments, the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) test, even whether they have to obey state law.

How can this be? One phrase explains it: the Religious Right. Offutt and his followers have embraced the agenda of groups like the Eagle Forum and the Texas Christian Coalition, of which more-rigorous standards is just one part. It includes vouchers (paying tax money directly to parents, who may then use it to pay private school tuition), vigilance against any federal involvement in education, curbing the power of the Texas Education Agency, vetting textbooks for offensive material as they define it, and resisting any attempt to infuse students with politically correct social values, and I do mean any attempt—even a picture in a textbook of a woman carrying a briefcase, which after debate was replaced by a picture of a woman putting a cake in the oven.

The Double R’s, as the Religious Right faction is sometimes called by its detractors, have made no secret of their desire to gain a majority of seats on the state board. They suffered a major setback on Election Day when Donna Ballard, who resigned her seat last year when her family moved from The Woodlands to Midland, lost a race to return to the board. But it is probably just a matter of time before the Double R’s attain their objective; they represent the dominant  force in the state’s dominant party.

This prospect panics the state’s political and business leaders, educators, and editorial writers. The problem isn’t just the agenda of the Double R’s—it’s also their style. They don’t compromise, and their minds can’t be changed. No issue is too small to overlook, and every fight is a crusade: forcing the state to dump Walt Disney stock from the endowment for public education because of films deemed morally offensive; indicating disapproval of an algebra textbook by ripping its cover off; refusing to approve the minutes of a previous meeting until a sentence critical of commissioner Moses was inserted; accusing Moses in writing of “feigned ignorance,” “pandering,” “stonewalling,” and “cover-up”; proposing to wrest the right to name the board’s chairman away from the governor; and in the meantime, urging Bush to remove board chairman Jack Christie—a fellow Republican.

Moses in writing of “feigned ignorance,” “pandering,” “stonewalling,” and “cover-up”; proposing to wrest the right to name the board’s chairman away from the governor; and in the meantime, urging Bush to remove board chairman Jack Christie—a fellow Republican.

Indeed, their greatest ire is reserved not for Democrats but for members of their own party who fail to support them. They go for the kill, and no one is exempt, not even Bush. Two years ago he called the first draft of a new curriculum “mushy” and demanded a revision, but when he backed a much improved rewrite against an alternative version proposed by the Double R’s, they blasted him. “Contrary to his campaign promises,” said Ballard, “he has embraced the education establishment. At this hour of need, leadership from the governor is lacking.” Unhappy with Christie, who voted in favor of a federal grant program they opposed, the Double R’s helped recruit a GOP primary opponent to run against him in 1996. (Christie won anyway.) Last year they turned their fire on vice chairman Monte Hasie of Lubbock, once regarded as the board’s staunchest conservative, when one of the Double R’s publicly accused him of a conflict of interest: Hasie had voted (along with all but one board member) to award investment contracts for the state’s $16 billion Permanent School Fund to firms that had made political contributions to his unsuccessful race for the state Senate. Technically this was not a conflict at all—the contributions involved a race that had nothing to do with the board—but that’s not the point. Elected officials rarely impugn the integrity of a colleague unless there is a very good reason, and Hasie was sure he knew what it was. “They’re trying to discredit me,” he told a reporter at the time. “They want my seat. There’s no question what this is about.” And they got it: A battle-weary Hasie did not seek reelection this year, and his successor is expected to become part of the Double R faction.

In a democracy it is no sin to oppose the majority. But the opposition is expected to be loyal, not to the majority but to the public interest. Its positions should be goodfaith efforts to improve the lot of society. The critics of the Double R’s question whether they really care about the public schools at all. None of the Double R’s has direct contact with public education; those with school-age children either send them to private schools or teach them at home. Most of their work on the board has been negative—opposing rather than proposing. It is going too far to say that the Double R’s would, as an Austin American-Statesman editorial suggested, “turn Texas classrooms into Sunday schools.” But it is fair to wonder, as Christie has, whether the Double R’s are on the board for any reason other than to promote their ideology. “Why are they there?” he asked me rhetorically. “Show me anybody who has been secretary of the PTA or had any involvement in a school. At some point you have to want to do something for kids.”

OFFUTT IS A CASE STUDY IN WHY THE conservative wing of the GOP, including the religious right, has been so successful in politics. Others only complain; they organize and vote. Offutt has proved that one person can change the politics of an entire state. Somewhat on the short side, with gray, thinning hair that is combed straight back, he has a soothing voice that belies his tenacity. He had never run for office before he was elected to the state board from San Antonio in 1992. Within two years, he had changed its balance of power and galvanized the religious right into a force in educational politics—although, he says, that is not what he set out to do. “I don’t come from the Christian Coalition or the American Family Association,” Offutt says. “A friend who was a member of the State Board of Education recruited me to run. We knew each other through Republican politics, and he told me he was going to run for the Legislature. I vaguely had the notion that there were problems with the public schools but no strong feeling what the problems were. I campaigned on keeping Austin off the backs of local districts and going back to basics. I had the naive idea that I’d figure out what the problems were, make rational arguments, and people would listen. I wasn’t there too many months before naiveté turned into awareness that minds can’t be changed. It comes down to core philosophical beliefs.”

The crucial moment for Offutt during that first year in office came when a woman with the Eagle Forum testified before the board. Afterward he walked over to her to deliver a compliment. “She was flabbergasted,” he recalls. “She had always been treated as a pariah. After that, those groups began coming to me.” Offutt had a constituency; now he needed reinforcements.

Nine months after going on the board, in September 1993, he went to see Fred Meyer, the state Republican party chairman. “I suggested that if the party paid more attention to the State Board of Education, we could have success in the 1994 elections,” Offutt says. “He said, ‘Great idea. Go do it. Use my name, get help from the party.’” Offutt had no idea how to find people who would run. He spent endless hours on the phone calling GOP county chairs and anybody else he could think of who might suggest a name. “Once I called someone on unrelated business,” he said, “and when he put me on hold, Rush Limbaugh was playing in the background instead of music, so I thought, ‘Why not ask him?’ He gave me the name of a local school board member. I got Donna Ballard’s name from my sister-in-law, who was the president of a Republican women’s club. I had never even met her until the last day for filing, when she came to Republican headquarters in Austin. I wasn’t looking for religious right people. I was looking for any warm-bodied conservative who was willing to run.”

Offutt’s recruits entered five races that year. Three of them won: Ballard and Randy Stevenson of Tyler defeated Democratic incumbents, assailing them over health textbooks that the board had adopted, and Richard Watson of Gorman won an open seat. Republicans had a one-vote majority on the education board, and Bush was pressing for education reform in the Legislature. It should have been the best of times for educational conservatives. But the Double R’s found themselves in conflict with members of their own party.

The issue was a federal grant program called Goals 2000, which provided money to schools to help raise student achievement. Stevenson had campaigned specifically against Goals 2000. Offutt opposed it. (The Double R’s “think the federal government is Russia,” says Will Davis, a longtime Democratic board member from Austin.) Bush, who favored Goals 2000—$87.7 million is a lot of money if it is used right—knew that he had a fight on his hands. He made the shrewd decision to appoint one of the most conservative Republican legislators, Carolyn Park of Bedford, a Goals 2000 skeptic, to head up a citizens panel that would come up with the state’s plan for using the money. His orders were (1) no federal strings attached and (2) no social programs. If Park gave the plan her blessing, then the Double R’s might drop their opposition.

She did. They didn’t. “I had listened to the propaganda,” she says. “The federal government is going to take over the Texas educational system, put health clinics in the schools, and distribute condoms. I got the federal legislation and read it cover to cover. A lot of things the opponents were telling me were not true. The program was completely voluntary. It had no strings attached; what is so ironic is that the program actually relieved Texas of some federal mandates. I went before the board and tried to tell them their fears weren’t justified. But with people who feel that way, you can talk until you’re blue in the face and it won’t make any difference.” Despite the objections of the Double R’s, Goals 2000 (now known as Academics 2000) passed. The money has been used primarily to improve reading in elementary schools. In Brownwood, for example, a $133,000 grant built a library media center, and third graders who participated saw their 1997 TAAS reading scores go up by an average of 29 points. “Everything that has come out of it has been good,” says Park.

Having estranged themselves from the governor, the Double R’s next went to work on alienating the Legislature. The new education reform law, backed by Bush, went into effect that summer. It took authority away from the state level—the Texas Education Agency and the state board—and gave it to the local level, something that the Double R’s had always said they were for. One of the most significant changes was to allow local districts to decide what textbooks they wanted to use. In the past the board had had near life-and-death power over textbooks. A school district was free to pick any book it wanted, but the state would only pay for books that the state board had approved. In controversial subjects like history and health, board members typically ordered publishers to make numerous changes at great expense—sometimes to correct factual errors, but often to satisfy members’ political concerns—and publishers had to comply or face exclusion from the lucrative Texas market. “The idea was to give districts more choices,” says State Senator Bill Ratliff, a Republican from Mount Pleasant who authored the education reform bill. “One size doesn’t fit all. A book that might be right for a rural district might not be right for the inner city. In subjects like health, we were ending up with only one or two books to choose from.”

Under the new law, the board’s authority over textbooks was limited to compiling lists of books that were factually accurate and covered at least half of the curriculum that Texas students were expected to learn. (Books that covered all of the curriculum made a preferred list.) When Ratliff sent the board a letter explaining that it could no longer influence the content of textbooks, the reaction of the Double R’s was denial. “Senator Ratliff is just one man of many,” Stevenson said. Ballard said that she did not consider herself bound by Ratliff’s description of the law’s intent. Christie pointed out the obvious: that the board was obligated to follow the law and would be unwise to thumb its nose at the Legislature. For this and for his support of Goals 2000, the Double R’s came to view Christie as an adversary. And Ratliff and other influential legislators viewed the Double R’s the same way.

One can see in these two fights the dilemma that every ideological movement faces following electoral success. Does it move away from its constituency to achieve some influence, or does it forgo influence to stick close to its political base? The Double R’s chose the latter, carrying on the fight over Goals 2000 even after their fears should have been allayed and over textbooks after a change in the law should have convinced them that they had no legal ground to stand on.

JACK CHRISTIE DOESN’T LIKE THE DESIGNATION of Offutt and his followers as part of the religious right. “I’m a Christian,” he told me. “I’m a conservative. When you call them the ‘religious right,’ you suggest that anyone who doesn’t agree with them isn’t religious or on the right. I went to hear Ralph Reed [the former head of the Christian Coalition] speak once, and I kept nudging my wife, ‘I’m for that. I’m for that.’ This isn’t about religion. This is about power.”

Before the Double R’s came along, the typical state board member had some experience in education, either as an employee or as a school board member. Christie, a chiropractor by profession, followed this traditional path, serving on the Spring Branch school board and seeing the district change from mostly white to 52 percent minority. “We still have the best test scores in Harris County,” he told me proudly one day in his West Houston office. He is a tall, gangly man who gets excited when he talks about education. “It should be the state’s highest priority,” he said. “I remember that when I went on the school board in 1978, prisons and roads were the state’s top priority. Now it truly is education. The Russians aren’t coming and the ozone layer is going to be all right, so let’s put schools first.

“We had one school where 92 percent of the students had free and reduced lunch,” he continued. “It had the worst problems you could imagine: truancy, vandalism, eight people showing up for PTA. We got a new principal who always had a coffee pot going and put a washer and dryer in the school, and pretty soon parents were strolling their kids through the building. In two years so many parents showed up for PTA that they had to have two meetings.” As he went on about teachers hauling buckets of water to a family whose service had been shut off, I realized just how wide was the gap between Offutt, the man of belief, and Christie, the man of experience.

Christie won his state board position in 1990, when the Democrats still had a majority. “I really miss the old days,” he sighed. “They were beautiful. If I didn’t vote with Monte [Hasie], we’d laugh and go on. I just enjoyed everybody. It was just like any public service position I’d ever been in: Tell me what you offer for the public; don’t tear down other people.”

In 1994 Bush was elected, and he named Christie chairman. One of Christie’s first acts was to name Offutt and Ballard chairs of two of the board’s three committees. That fed speculation that Christie was aligning himself with the Double R’s—but it didn’t last long. “I saw a little signal from Offutt’s committee when he wanted to get rid of our long-term goal, ‘All children can learn,’” Christie said. “We admit defeat if we don’t believe that. But he wanted to say, ‘All children must be presented the opportunity to learn.’ That’s a big philosophical change. It gives us an excuse not to teach lazy, economically deprived, or troubled kids. Good teachers don’t give up on kids. By April I’m being researched by a political consulting firm so that someone can run against me. Then they say that Goals 2000 is designed to let Bill and Hillary take over public schools. You and I know that’s a crock. The icing on the cake of Goals 2000 is that local districts can apply for waivers of federal regulations. We led the nation in waivers.”

Christie had to leave; the patients were stacking up. As I got up, I noticed his honorable discharge certificate from the army that was framed on a wall. “They’ll have to give you another one for this war,” I said. Christie broke into an announcer’s voice: “The State Board of Education today honored retiring chairman Jack Christie. The vote was ten to five.”

THE BREACH BETWEEN CHRISTIE AND the Double R’s ended any possibility that a unified Republican majority would set the agenda for the board. But the 1996 elections swelled the faction’s ranks by two more members, David Bradley of Beaumont and Richard Neill of Fort Worth, giving them six of the fifteen slots as the board undertook its most important task: the rewriting of the curriculum, which is a statement of what every student in Texas is expected to learn in every academic subject. This should have been their best moment, when their insistence on high standards would prove to be a positive force for education in Texas.

Offutt in particular is attuned to curriculum issues (as he demonstrated with his analysis of the end-of-course U.S. history test). He understands that underneath such issues as whether reading should be taught through phonics and whether students should be required to memorize dates and names lie some profound philosophical differences about how children should be educated. These differences have nothing whatsoever to do with religion. They have everything to do with what children learn. He had won some earlier victories in 1995 by reintroducing spelling books and preventing grammar books from being phased out—two successes that he uses to refute charges that he is just against everything. Yet before the curriculum fight was over, Offutt and the Double R’s would go horribly astray.

The new curriculum was called TEKS, an acronym for Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills. Between those last two words—“knowledge” and “skills”—is a gulf that separates two competing philosophies of how students should be taught. What might be called the old-school approach is that every student needs to acquire a body of knowledge: spelling, grammar, dates, places, events, computations, familiar literature, basic scientific laws, and the workings of democracy and government. The new-school approach is that students should have skills that they can take with them into the workplace: how to read a graph or a chart, how to use a calculator, how to read a simple paragraph. The old-school approach demands that students know the capital of Vermont; the new-school approach wants them to be able to find Montpelier on a map. To old-schoolers, the new-school approach is nothing more than dumbing down. To the new-schoolers, the old-school approach is boring, requires rote memorization, emphasizes rules rather than critical thinking, and has the consequence that many students hate school, find it irrelevant, suffer a loss of self-esteem, and eventually drop out. The U.S. history test that Offutt gave me is a new-school test. It measures the ability to read a map, interpret a cartoon, or comprehend a paragraph, not historical knowledge.

For most of the second half of the century, the new-schoolers have had the upper hand in educational circles. They gave us open classrooms, new math, whole-language reading, emphasis on self-esteem, and other fads, none of which produced results. The counterrevolution began in 1983 with the publication of a study by the National Commission on Educational Excellence that confirmed what was already obvious: Educational achievement was “being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and as a people.” What’s more, we had some very wrongheaded ideas about how to measure the quality of education: We looked at what went into the educational system (expenditures per pupil, teachers’ salaries, class size, equity between rich and poor school districts) instead of results (what children actually learned). The real antidote to low achievement, the argument goes, is to set high standards about what students are expected to know and hold schools accountable for meeting them, using standardized tests like the TAAS to measure student performance. This idea has never been fully accepted by many educators, but business leaders and state-level politicians nationwide—among them George W. Bush—have embraced it. The old-schoolers had won. But the new-schoolers got to write the standards.

What happened in Texas followed the pattern of many other states that tried a results-based approach: The first draft of the TEKS, produced by teams that included educators, business representatives, and parents, came up with standards that were too vague to measure—what Bush called “mushy.” For example, the spelling requirement for students in the early grades was not to spell correctly but to write “with increasingly accurate spelling.” When do they have to learn how to spell? The answer was never. In grades nine through twelve, the standard was: “spells with increasing accuracy.” Nor was correct grammar mandated, only that a high school student “attends to grammar and usage in writing.” Writing standards included using the graphs and charts that new-schoolers adore and emphasized writing as a way to improve self-esteem: “The student uses writing as a tool for reflection and personal growth.”

The Double R’s, as Ballard put it to a group of supporters, “pitched a fit.” Moses, who had become commissioner after the TEKS process was well under way, went back to the drawing board. The Double R’s could not have been in a better position. Moses and Bush wanted fifteen votes for the TEKs, a unanimous endorsement. At that moment, everything was on the table. They could have gotten almost anything they wanted, short of an endorsement of creationism. For once they were on the same side as the governor. No one in the process had more leverage. They asked for a role for a member of the Eagle Forum. Moses put a Forum representative on the reading team. They asked a nationally known conservative education expert to review the work of the teams. Moses used several. They told Moses that some of the teams had too many educational establishment types. he added more parents. After the second draft came out in the fall of 1996, Moses took changes from individual board members. But they weren’t satisfied; as an anonymous critic of the Double R’s told a reporter: “These people cannot take yes for an answer.” In a caricature of the kinds of stupid mistakes that fringe groups make in politics, they squandered their leverage by focusing not on how to make the final version of the TEKs better, but on how the first draft got to be so bad. Their conclusion: It was a conspiracy (although they are careful never to use the c-word), and Hillary Clinton and friends were behind it.

Like any conspiracy theory, this one had anchors in reality. Early in 1997, the Double R’s revealed what they had uncovered, once for the state board and again on a videotape that was distributed to their religious right constituency. It is a long and tortuous story, but this much is undisputed: at the beginning of the TEKS process, long before Mike Moses became commissioner, the Texas Education Agency consulted with, received training from, had myriad other kinds of contacts with, and became a partner in the New Standards Project, a Washington D.C.—based consortium managed in part by the nonprofit National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) to raise standards nationally. Now, let’s go forward to the 1997 videotape, where Donna Ballard is talking to a packed room of parents at an nondenominational church in Fort Worth. With her shoulder-length blond hair and breezy way of talking, she is bursting with charisma. “Who is NCEE?” she says. “We asked that question. Who heads up that board? That led us to the most interesting information. The person who is the executive director is Marc Tucker, and Marc Tucker is very close friends with an individual by the name of Ira Magaziner and Hillary Clinton. You see, Ira Magaziner and Hillary are the ones who designed the universal health care plan, and Marc Tucker and Ira and Hillary are the ones who designed the radical restructuring of education in the United States. . . . Basically, the idea is similar to the German model and the Soviet model of combining the workplace and the schoolhouse under government control.”

What is there to say? Hasie defended the TEKS process, Will Davis wanted to know what was wrong with the TEKS, and Moses put out a 64-point memo addressing the elements of the conspiracy theory. The only effect of the presentation by the Double R’s was to fatally damage their own ability to affect the TEKS. For a short time Moses continued to make changes that the Double R’s requested, still hoping for a unanimous vote. Instead, they went off on another tangent, supporting a language arts curriculum prepared by teachers working on their own and called the Texas Alternative Document. The TAD was an impressive production, but no public board is going to throw aside three years of work involving thousands of citizens to adopt something that came in over the transom. Moses decided it was time to move on. “I became very frustrated that no matter how many changes we made, we never got to a point where those members would support the document,” he says, “and I related that to the governor.”

When the TEKS finally came up for the long-awaited vote in July, Christie brought a registered parliamentarian to the board meeting, at Moses’ suggestion, in case the Double R’s tried to delay the vote. Christie got a ruling that allowed him to trump Robert’s Rules of Order and cut off debate over amendments. The interplay was savage; one of the Double R’s would propose a change, the same two Democrats would promptly move to table and second the motion, and the amendment would be tabled. Not once did the Double R’s get more than their own five votes. When Christie tired of the game, he cut off the amendments on the grounds that they were dilatory. It was a public shunning.

FOUR YEARS OF FIGHTING HAVE INFLICTED heavy casualties on the board. Christie, Hasie, and Stevenson will not be back next year; the last two did not seek reelection, and Christie, his term as chairman having expired, is expected to step down to allow Bush to name his successor. It is a sure bet that the new member will not be a Double R. Supporters of Moses fear that he will not stick around to have indignity heaped upon him. In a way Ballard was a casualty too; her attacks on Bush while a board member caused many of his loyalists in West Texas to openly oppose her campaign to return to the board.

The list of the wounded grows longer. The Double R’s are so suspicious, so negative, so intransigent, and so politically inept that they have ostracized themselves—not just from rest of the board but from the political mainstream. Even if they do get a majority, the Legislature will restrict the board’s powers or change it from elected to appointed before lawmakers allow the reforms that they enacted to be scuttled.

Finally, at the top of the casualty list, is the public schools. Often the Double R’s are right about the little picture. Education bureaucrats do need reining in. The curriculum does need higher standards. The TAAS test does have many deficiencies. The federal government does have to be prevented from taking over education. Excessive emphasis on career programs will lead to dumbing down. But they are wrong about the big picture. The public schools need to be improved, but they also deserve to be defended. The curriculum that the Double R’s fought so hard to defeat has been rated by the Fordham Foundation, an old-school, high-standards organization, as one of the top three in the country. Even Offutt concedes that the standards improved, in his estimation, from an F to a still-unacceptable B; perhaps, with a little less worry about Hillary Clinton and a little more fence mending, the Double R’s could have raised them to an A. Texas (along with North Carolina) has posted the greatest gains in test scores in the country, thanks to the TAAS test that the Double R’s want to abolish. Even the career programs that they warn against have some merit, as long as they are voluntary. The public schools, after all, are designed to produce good citizens who can hold a job and function in the adult world, not a nation of intellectuals. But the Double R’s will never make a difference until they learn to regard every defect as fixable—not fatal.

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