AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The often-combative Texas Board of Education would expand its ability to reject textbooks it doesn't like, rolling back limits that have been in place for more than two decades, under a proposal on the verge of clearing the state Legislature.
Some fear the bill's benign language would, intentionally or not, return broad influence to a veteran bloc of social conservatives on the 15-member, elected board. That same group previously has attempted to deemphasize lessons on evolution and climate change, and insist that publishers edit classroom materials to better conform to Republican ideology.
How impactful is the textbook market in Texas? Large enough that changes made for the state can affect what's taught nationwide, though modern, electronic classroom materials have made it easier to tailor lessons to individual states and school districts — thus diluting Texas' national influence some in recent years.
The board's ability to influence what gets published in textbooks — even sometimes line-editing materials to remove things its members opposed — was far greater before 1995. That year, the Texas Legislature passed an omnibus education bill that included limits allowing the board only to reject textbooks when discovering factual errors or material that didn't conform to Texas curriculum standards, which mandate what gets taught its about 5.3 million students.
Texas' more than 1,000 school districts don't have to use board-approved textbooks, but most do.
Some say a bill approved late Tuesday in the Texas House and previously passed by the Senate would return sweeping influence to the board. The proposal would require that all materials on the Board of Education's instructional list be "suitable for the subject and grade level" for which it was submitted. That seems relatively tame, but classroom advocates say it is subjective enough to force wholesale textbook rewrites.
"Board members will take this bill as an open invitation to return to the days of almost unrestrained bullying of publishers to change or censor textbook content for purely political reasons," said Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network, a board watchdog group and frequent critic. "The board will become an even bigger political circus than it has been."
The proposal's sponsor, Sen. Kel Seliger, doesn't see it as a major expansion of power.
"There's been a lot of weirdness, but as it's described in the bill, it's about age and grade appropriateness and things like that," said Seliger, a Republican from Amarillo. "The culture wars won't be played out in legislation."
But Seliger also acknowledged that the proposed changes could have unintended consequences: "Absolutely there will be factions that try to stretch and look for things like ideological purity."
Both the Texas House and Senate are Republican-controlled, but state lawmakers have long been wary of increasing board influence. In 2011, the Texas Senate voted to expand the board's veto power over classroom electronic materials. After the media called attention to the move, the Senate took the unusual step of returning hours later and amending its already passed legislation to remove that expansion.
There was no debate on the House floor Tuesday night, as lawmakers passed it. But one late modification was inserted by Houston Democratic Rep. Alma Allen and is meant to ensure that instructional materials comply with "contemporary scholarship" while empowering outside academic experts to be part of the process. That amendment may not survive on the final bill, but it ensures it'll have to head back to the Senate.
That chamber can either accept the change and send the full bill to Gov. Greg Abbott, ship it back to the House without the amendment, or reconcile differences via conference committee. Abbott hasn't said if he'll sign Seliger's proposal, but it will automatically become law after clearing the Legislature unless he issues a veto. Even if it stalls, though, there's another chance for it to become law.
Similar language has been attached to a separate bill otherwise requiring board-approved state instructional materials to include "American principles." That cleared the Senate on Friday.