Who decides which textbooks are used in the public schools? It’s up to the State Board of Education, whose fifteen members are elected from districts around the state. But by the time a book actually gets in front of the SBOE, it seems that nearly everyone in Texas has weighed in and tried to massage its content.
How so? First, consider the tortured three-year approval process for textbooks. It begins with a notice sent to publishers by the Texas Education Agency soliciting books that comply with the state’s curriculum requirements for each subject. (Textbooks have a nine-year life span in Texas, and books covering different subjects come up for review every year.) The publishers produce drafts and submit them to board-approved volunteer committees made up of educators in the textbook subjects’ fields. After roughly two years of study, the committees send the SBOE a list of books they believe conform—and don’t conform—to Texas’s educational standards. Then the controversy begins.
What controversy? Before the SBOE votes on any of the recommended books, publishers must make formal presentations at a series of public meetings that have become, over the years, a sort of free-for-all on hot-button issues. For example, at public forums held in the summer of 2004 to discuss possible middle- and high-school health textbooks, conservative groups argued that the chapters on sex education needed to define marriage as a union between “a man and a woman”—as it is defined under Texas law—rather than “two people.” Previously, such groups have argued against the absence of creationism in biology textbooks, the coverage of global warming in environmental science textbooks, and in the wake of 9/11, a too-favorable definition of Islam in a social studies textbook.
How does the SBOE respond to these complaints? In 1995, intent on keeping ideology from creeping into textbooks, the Legislature passed a law stating that the SBOE can reject a book only on the basis of factual errors or failure to meet the state’s curriculum standards. Still, members of the board sometimes receive hundreds of calls and e-mails on a particular issue. Rather than vote against a disputed book, members often use the threat of rejection to strong-arm publishers into making