IDEOLOGICAL BATTLES OVER THE CONTENT of school textbooks are nothing new to the State Board of Education ( SBOE), but the most recent fight marked the emergence of a conservative think tank as a power in an increasingly factionalized Republican party. The board’s rejection last November of an environmental science book for Texas high school students, which had received preliminary approval from the textbook committee of the Texas Education Agency, occurred largely due to the work of the San Antonio-based Texas Public Policy Foundation ( TPPF), co-founded by well-known conservative activist James Leininger, a strong supporter of and contributor to conservative causes and candidates. “We were unfamiliar with the process,” says Dean DeChambeau, the associate managing editor for the publisher, Jones and Bartlett, of Massachusetts. “We were not aware that the TPPF report had such a strong influence on board members, given the report’s own biases, misconceptions, and erroneous claims.”
For many years textbook hearings were dominated by individuals whose complaints were often based on religious grounds. Self-appointed reviewers Norma and Mel Gabler, of Longview, were perennial watchdogs of perceived anti-Christian bias. (Once, a critic complained that a picture of a woman with a briefcase violated family values.) But the TPPF’s attack on Jones and Bartlett’s Environmental Science: Creating a Sustainable Future was far more sophisticated, had far more clout behind it, and had far more success: Its critique of all science books up for adoption identified 260 “errors,” some of which were acknowledged and fixed by their publishers. Now the stage is set for an even bigger battle over social studies textbooks this summer, for which the TPPF is already gearing up.
In an effort to cut down on the eternal squabbling over textbooks, the Legislature adopted a law in 1995 limiting the board to rejecting textbooks solely on the basis of errors, not ideology. But sometimes the line between the two can be blurred. Consider this dubious passage, which played a major role in the TPPF’s critique of Jones and Bartlett’s book: “Some scholars believe that the spread of democracy, which put land ownership and wealth in the hands of many, and the Industrial Revolution, which made mass production of goods possible and spread wealth throughout society, are at the root of the environmental crisis.” But if democracy is to blame, how do you explain Chernobyl or the ghastly environmental record of communist Eastern Europe—or, for that matter, the rise of the environmental movement in the world’s biggest democracy?
The 10-5 vote against the book, which fell strictly on party lines, represented a breakthrough for Republicans, a way to get around the restrictions imposed by the Legislature. Even Houston board member Chase Untermeyer, who often votes with the moderates on the board, found the book so slanted that it was “essentially untrue.” “It’s the way the facts are presented and the totality of what the book is teaching,” he says.
Democratic board members, worried about the precedent the board was setting, claimed that their GOP colleagues had ignored the law and capitulated to political pressure from a group closely identified with Leininger. Since that vote, only the foolhardy will underestimate the influence of the TPPF, which was created in 1989 to promote the ideals of the free market and limited government. The foundation has numerous ties to prominent Republicans: Its chair is none other than Wendy Gramm, the wife of U.S. senator Phil Gramm; Dallas businessman Vance Miller, a director, is married to SBOE member Geraldine Miller. Both comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander and land commissioner David Dewhurst have signed fundraising letters for the group, and Leininger is a leading campaign contributor to Texas Republican candidates, giving some $363,000 to the party and its standard-bearers last year alone. His stature in GOP circles was sealed in the 1998 elections, when he guaranteed last-minute $1 million loans to Rick Perry and Rylander, making their narrow victories possible.
The rise of the TPPF comes at a time when two battles are being waged concurrently that will determine Texas’ political future: the old skirmish for dominance between Democrats and Republicans and an internecine feud within the Republican party between GOP moderates and the hard-line conservatives. The TPPF has positioned itself as a Texas version of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, providing research that views governmental policies through a conservative prism. By proclaiming the “correct” conservative view on issues ranging from transportation to Medicaid, the TPPF has provided the Republican right with an agenda. The degree to which politicians agree with the TPPF could determine the strength of their conservative pedigrees.
But the TPPF’s growing presence in state government raises questions about its ultimate goals and those of its founder. Leininger, a hospital-bed manufacturer, first became involved in politics as part of the tort-reform movement. After generously contributing to conservative Texas Supreme Court candidates in the late eighties, Leininger turned his attention to vouchers. He is principally known for financing a movement for vouchers in Texas as well as for CEO San Antonio, which pays tuition for students to attend private schools. Leininger’s ties to the TPPF highlight the issue of whether an organization founded by a relentless critic of Texas public schools can consistently produce credible research. (The left side of the spectrum has foundations seeking to exercise influence too, such as the Center for Public Policy Priorities, supported by the Benedictine Sisters of Boerne. The reason that the TPPF is more controversial is its identification with Leininger, a prominent donor to GOP politicians.)
Not all Republicans are enamored of the conservative faction on the SBOE. As governor, George W. Bush and his education commissioner, Mike Moses, tangled frequently with the conservative bloc. More recently, Republican lieutenant governor Bill Ratliff, of Mount Pleasant, has emerged as the leading critic of the party’s right wing and the SBOE. Shortly before the March 12 primary elections, Ratliff harshly criticized the Free Enterprise Political Action Committee (Free- PAC)—to which Leininger has given $155,000 since 1996—for sending out graphic mailings accusing several moderate Republicans,