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