Saturday, February 1, 2014

New Rules on Textbooks: The Age of Reason Approved by Texas Board of Education

by Nomad

A recent decision by the Texas Board of Education will attempt to roll back the effect of religious and political groups' influence over public school textbooks. 
Despite this good news, the question remains whether the experts which the board will consult for accuracy can actually be trusted. 
Here's another sign that what was once blood red can just as easily become sky blue. AP is reporting news that civil libertarians will see as a victory of science and established facts over religious dogma and the influence of politics.
The Texas Board of Education imposed tighter rules Friday on the citizen review panels that scrutinize proposed textbooks, potentially softening fights over evolution, religion's role in U.S. history and other ideological matters that have long seeped into what students learn in school.
How The Minority Used its Majority
This issue has been brewing for awhile. One reason for this is that Texas is the nation's largest state with more more than 5 million public school students. Also, it is because many of the textbooks printed there are accepted in other states as well. Thus all it takes is for a few activists with a religious or political agenda to have a vast influence over what is being taught to our children.
The 15-member education board approves textbooks for school districts to use, but objections raised by reviewers can influence its decisions. The volunteer review panels are often dominated by social conservatives who want more skepticism about evolution included in science textbooks, arguing that a higher power helped create the universe.
The article pointed out that social conservatives used their majority on the board to affect these changes to the textbook selection process. 
The board also had long been controlled by social conservatives before election defeats weakened their voting bloc in recent years — but not before its culture war clashes drew national headlines. 
It was clear that certain issues were on the hit list.
Those members pushed for de-emphasizing climate change in science classes, and requiring social studies students to learn about the Christian values of America's founding fathers and evaluate whether the United Nations undermined U.S. sovereignty.
In an effort to reverse the influence of narrow interest groups, the new rules mandated that teachers or professors be given priority for serving on the textbook review panels for subjects in their areas of expertise. Furthermore, the rules enable the board to appoint outside experts to check objections raised by review panels and ensure they are based on fact, not ideology.
"It won't eliminate politics, but it will make it where it's a more informed process," said Thomas Ratliff, a Republican board member who pushed for the changes, which he said "force us to find qualified people, leave them alone, and let them do their jobs."
The new rules were unanimously approved.

Back in 2010, things were very different. About four years ago, the Texas Board of Education approved of a social studies curriculum that aimed to push the conservative agenda on history and economic textbooks. Among the subjects which were given a conservative slant were the superiority of American capitalism, doubts about the Found Father's views on secular government and other Republican political philosophies. Critics charges this was little more than an attempt to brainwash high school students.

“They are going overboard, they are not experts, they are not historians. They are rewriting history, not only of Texas but of the United States and the world.”
Political Agendas: A Case Study 
The interference in textbook materials is not limited to the religious or conservative ideology. Corporations also want a hand in what children are taught regarding their industries.
Late last year,  another controversy surfaced involving  the only board- approved environmental textbook in the Texas school curriculum.  Advocates for the oil and gas industry objected to what they called factual errors in the school boards about the industry, especially about the dangers of fracking and the causes of climate change.

Becky Berger
Becky Berger
One geologist and oil and gas professional, testified at a textbook hearing Becky Berger testified at a textbook hearing. Berger who was running for Railroad commissioner, complained that the book had more social science than actual science. The board was shocked by the sudden interest in the proceedings from the industry. But there was a more obvious- and cynical explanation offered by Josh Rosenau, the programs and policy director at the National Center for Science Education.  He observed that Berger was running for Texas Railroad Commissioner, and if elected would help regulate the state’s oil and gas industry  He added in an interview with Huffington Post, that Berger's testimony sounded more like a “campaign speech.”
Due to the board’s visible "shock" over the testimony, the episode "showed just how easy it is for special interests, at the last minute, to hijack the textbook adoption process in Texas," Texas Freedom Network said. The group also noted that previous review panels had not taken issue with the book.
One witness to the last minute surprise testimony by Berger, Steven Schafersman, had this to say:
I listened in astonishment as she criticized the book and repeatedly made statements that I knew were inaccurate or false.... I had no idea what her motivation was or why she was saying such bizarre things about an excellent environmental science textbook. .. After discovering very late last night that Becky Berger was a Republican candidate for the Railroad Commission, I realized that she was using the attack on an environmental science book as a way to publicize her political campaign for the Republican Primary Tea Party voters’ support.
Schafersman is certainly in a position to judge. He has a Ph.D. in geology and has long worked in the petroleum and environmental industries. In addition, he was an Earth Science college and university professor for 23 years during which he taught geology, environmental science, and petroleum geology courses at four different colleges and universities (and many other courses).  

Instead of relying on testimony of special interests or the word of ambitious politicians looking for endorsements. Schaferman and other experts will now become exactly the sort of resource the Texas Board of Education will use under the new rules.
It shouldn't be difficult to find a consensus on that particular subject. After all, according to NASA, 97% of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities and most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position.
Don't Texas schools have a duty to teach children what a vast majority of scientist believe to be true?
Anything less would be teaching ignorance. 

The Taint of Big Moneyed Interests
It's not all good news. It never is.
When it comes to consultants and experts in the field, even this common sense approach may be flawed.  The question is: Can even the experts be trusted now?

The Investigative Reporting Workshop has studied how the Koch Brothers with all of their organizations have  been successful at using donations to solicit the experts in favor of their own agenda on a variety of issues. Koch foundations donated to 221 universities during the 2007-2011 period, giving as little as $1,000 to Wisconsin Lutheran College and more than $16 million to George Mason University.
All in all,  The Kochs donated to 89 nonprofits and one annual conference, all of which have public policy and educational missions synchronous with those of the Koch corporation — deregulation, limited government, climate change denial, anti-union and free market notions.

It's really a two-prong attack. As IRW explains:
And while Koch Industries’ lobbyists were spending $53.9 million to further the giant corporation’s federal and state policy agenda, the nonprofits it funded were simultaneously “educating” the public and lawmakers about energy, the environment and other issues in public testimony on Capitol Hill.
By itself, donations do not necessarily mean influence. However, it is hard not to see the problem with impartiality. Can experts be trusted when it comes to hot subjects like global climate change?
The IRW puts it like this:
The Kochs have been involved in influencing higher education for more than 30 years, beginning with what is now called the Mercatus Center and the Institute for Humane Studies, both based at George Mason University in the Virginia suburbs of Washington. Between 2007 and 2011, the Kochs gave $30.5 million to 221 universities through their charitable foundations. More than half of that giving, roughly $16 million, has gone to George Mason University and its foundation. Recently, however, the Koch brothers’ influence has expanded outside Northern Virginia and created potential conflicts of interest for the universities accepting their donations.
According to SourceWatch,  this funding helped to establish and has maintained GMU unrivaled  " set of libertarian "study centers", which aim to recruit and support young, free-market-oriented students - typically through paid-for "study trips", seminars, and placements."
Basically you put a dollar in and the friendly scientist armed with the "right" opinion pops out at the other end. At least that's the suspicion.
Here then is the problem then for the Texas Board of Education as they search for qualified individuals to decide what is accurate.

Will it be possible to find an expert to consult that has not been tainted with Koch Industry dollars?