Right Makes Might
A showdown over science textbooks proves a conservative think tank is a player in the power game, but GOP moderates suspect a hidden agenda.
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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, including Ratliff, of “promoting the homosexual agenda in Texas.” In a Capitol press conference that drew an overflow crowd, Ratliff called the mailing “political pornography” and compared Free-PAC’s financial backers to governments that aid and abet terrorism.
During his fourteen years in the Texas Senate, Ratliff has been a leading voice for moderate Republicans, compromising with Democrats on divisive issues like the hate crimes law. (That vote earned him the pro-gay label from Free-PAC, which reasoned that the hate crimes law gave new rights to homosexuals by increasing penalties for beating them up.) Ratliff also sponsored Bush’s 1995 education-reform bill that overhauled the state’s education laws, including the one that curbed the SBOE’s ability to reject textbooks.
Ratliff, who easily won his Republican primary election despite the mailing, sees a hidden agenda behind the TPPF’s criticism of textbooks, which is based on its relationship with to Leininger. “What this group is all about is the drive for vouchers,” Ratliff says. Because the foundation has kept up steady criticism of Texas public schools, he believes its findings—involving not only textbooks but also the new TAKS test (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills)—ultimately will be used to lobby on behalf of vouchers. “That’s why they say the public schools are not rigorous enough, that we are still not doing enough. And the proof of that, they say, is that we dumb down our tests.”
“It’s ridiculous to say that we want hard tests because we want to get rid of public schools,” responds Michael Sullivan, the communications director for the TPPF. But, he acknowledged, the TPPF favors choice. “Parents should be able to choose what schools their kids go to. We don’t like the fact that rich kids can go to private school and poor kids can’t. We don’t want to keep kids in schools that aren’t meeting their needs.”
Democratic SBOE member Mary Helen Berlanga, of Corpus Christi, criticized her conservative colleagues for failing to follow the law restricting the board’s role to challenging errors. “Anything they don’t agree with is an error,” she says of the TPPF. “It’s like a dictatorship—a book has to say what they want it to say.” Just as the conservatives had a point about the passage blaming democracy for environmental damage, so does Berlanga have a point about the foundation’s biases. For instance, the book attributes global warming to the burning of fossil fuels and the subsequent release of carbon dioxide—an idea accepted by most mainstream scientists but flagged by the TPPF as erroneous.
The next battle—over social studies textbooks—will be even more heated than the recent fight over Jones and Bartlett’s book, because social studies involves less fact and more interpretation than science. The results will determine what Texas students of all ages read about history and geography. Already, an argument has erupted over the timeline for submitting a critique of a proposed book. Responding to publishers’ complaints about inadequate time to react to critics, the SBOE voted unanimously in March to move up the time period for citizen review of textbooks. As Untermeyer explains, “We need to change the schedule so that the public’s concerns are voiced much earlier and publishers do have a chance to respond.”
But Chris Patterson, the director of educational research for the TPPF, calls the vote “an outrageous move to muzzle parents, teachers, and taxpayers who want to make sure textbooks are accurate and academically sound.” Since publishers have been granted extra time to write passages about the September 11 terrorist attacks, the books will be available for review for only two months, she noted. That is unlikely to reduce the TPPF’s influence. Both the TPPF and another conservative group, Texas Citizens for a Sound Economy, have begun communicating their views directly to publishers, which Berlanga says is “threatening the integrity of the process.” She is especially concerned that publishers will censor themselves, offering up only textbooks they believe will satisfy the conservative critics. “We deserve the right to see what the publishers have developed on their own,” she argues.
Michael Sullivan says the TPPF has communicated to publishers what they are going to be looking for: “Lots of dates. Original documents. Our criteria are going to be that facts are accurate. Key historical figures need to be noted.” By state law, however, the SBOE has already stipulated what material must be covered in textbooks. Allowing the TPPF, a private organization, to supersede that proclamation “taints the process,” Berlanga says, by insisting on its own standards for what the books must contain.
Bill Ratliff has the same concerns about the TPPF’s critique of the new TAKS test, which replaces the TAAS. The TPPF says that the new test, which is still in development, will rate students on skills below their grade level. “I find it strange that they can criticize a test before it has even been developed,” Ratliff says. “What it means to me is they are prepared to criticize it no matter what it says.”
With Republicans certain to control both houses of the Legislature, however, the TPPF’s influence is assured. They are following the blueprint laid out by Phil Gramm at a TPPF fund-raising dinner several years ago: “The Republican party dominated America in the 1980’s because we dominated the political and economic thinking of America in the 1970’s,” he said. “If we are going to dominate the future, we must dominate in the debate for ideas.…” But the question that bothers the TPPF’s critics is whether the foundation is really dealing with ideas or just repackaging what schoolchildren will learn to suit the views of James Leininger.