AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — 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.
Tension over the issue has been building for years in the country's second most populous state, where the textbook market is so large that changes can affect the industry nationwide. Critics complain that a few activists with religious or political objections have too much power to shape what the state's more than 5 million public school students are taught.
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 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. Those members pushed for deemphasizing 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.
Among the changes approved Friday was a mandate that teachers or professors be given priority for serving on the textbook review panels for subjects in their areas of expertise. They also 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.
An outspoken conservative on the board, David Bradley, said he did his best to insert language mitigating what was approved. But he said "liberals are really trying to make it difficult for Christians and conservatives to have a voice in public education."
"Certainly there are some members that were unhappy with some of the experts that we've had in the past and certain reviewers," said Bradley, a Republican from Beaumont.
"Maybe it's embarrassing when citizens step forth and show some of the blatant inaccuracies in our American history, references to our founding fathers, our Christian heritage, truly errors. But to try and silence them with intimidation, I think, is wrong and that's what this is all about," he said.
Other changes require proposed books to be reviewed by at least two panel members, so that a single volunteer can't raise objections. The new rules also require panelists to submit majority and minority reports about proposed material, and restrict board members' contact with reviewers to avoid unfair influence.
A more ambitious plan that would have allowed the education board to remove panelists for inappropriate behavior failed 9-6 earlier in the week.
Friday's changes will take effect before the board tackles the potentially thorny adoption of new social studies textbooks later this year. The board can force publishers to edit the content of textbooks for such classes, sometimes based on review panel suggestions, because Texas has such a large market for the books, and those revisions can make it into textbooks sold around the country.
The catalyst for revamping the citizen review panels came last summer, when ardent evolution skeptics — including a nutritionist and a chemical engineer — caused a tumultuous fight. They challenged a proposed biology textbook that they claimed contained too much information on natural selection, Charles Darwin's theory on how life on earth evolved.
Ratliff refused to predict whether they would help avoid the raucous board debates of the past. But he said the education board has come a long way.
"This board is more cohesive and more policy driven than I believe we've been in a long time," he said. "Which is not good for headlines but it's good for public education."
Though modest, the changes could indeed have a major impact in Texas — where Republican Gov. Rick Perry bragged during his 2011 presidential campaign that students were taught both evolution and creationism.
The previous year, the education board approved social studies and history curriculum in which children learned that the words "separation of church and state" were not in the Constitution. And, Thomas Jefferson was replaced as an example of an influential political philosopher with the likes of John Calvin, celebrated by the religious right.
Still, Friday's changes only deal only with textbook reviews and won't stop larger clashes by education board members about textbooks. They also won't affect panels that vet proposed curriculums.
The vote was a positive step, but "we'd like to see even stronger protections against political meddling," said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, a watchdog group that keeps tabs on the education board.
"It's way past time to stop (board) members and activists with an ax to grind from manipulating this process and politicizing our students' textbooks," she said.