AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The long-running ideological dispute over what gets taught in Texas classrooms flared anew over proposed history textbooks Tuesday, with academics decrying lessons they said exaggerate the importance of Christian values on the nation's Founding Fathers while conservatives complained of anti-American, pro-Islam biases.
The Board of Education will approve new history textbooks for the state's 5-plus million public school students in November. But it heard hours of complaints about 104 proposed books during a sometimes heated public hearing.
Jacqueline Jones, chairwoman of the University of Texas' History Department, said one U.S. history high school book cheerleads for President Ronald Reagan and the significance of America's free enterprise system while glossing over Gov. George Wallace's attempt to block school integration in Alabama. She also pointed to a phrase stating that "the minimum wage remains one of the New Deal's most controversial legacies."
"We do our students a disservice when we scrub history clean of unpleasant truths," Jones said "and when we present an inaccurate view of the past that promotes a simple-minded, ideologically driven point of view."
Objections such as Jones' were the most common, but some conservatives complained that the books marginalized Reagan and other top Republicans, even as they heaped praise on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
"I guess Ronald Reagan did nothing in two terms," scoffed Republican board member Ken Mercer of San Antonio.
Debates over academic curriculum and textbooks have for years thrust Texas' Board of Education into the national spotlight, sparking battles over issues such as how to teach climate change and natural selection. In 2010, while approving the history curriculum standards that this year's round of new books are supposed to follow, conservatives on the board required that students evaluate whether the United Nations undermines U.S. sovereignty and study the Congressional GOP's 1994 Contract with America.
Kathleen Wellman, a history professor at Southern Methodist University, said many books give Moses — the biblical Hebrew leader who received the Ten Commandments from God — credit for influencing the U.S. Constitution, so much so that Texas students might believe "Moses was the first American."
"Moses shows up everywhere doing everything," Wellman said.
All of Tuesday's comments are sent to the publishers, who can provide responses in defense of what's written, or make changes, before final approval of the books.
Some community leaders complained that proposed books downplayed Hispanic accomplishments, incorrectly depicted jihad as a call to holy war, or were biased in favor of Israeli points of view in Middle East conflicts. But conservative activists said they didn't go far enough in accurately depicting religious extremism in modern terrorism.
Amy Jo Baker, a retired history teacher and former social studies director for the San Antonio Independent School District, said she was saddened that one book for sixth graders incorrectly described jihad, for many Muslims, as the struggle to be a better person. She also noted a high school history text that said young people in Cuba receive "many benefits" from the communist government, while also noting that they live in a police state.
"I think our students deserve textbooks that are historically accurate and not politically correct," Baker said, adding that she wants textbooks that "reflect not America as the bad guy, but America as an exceptional nation."
A group of experts convened by the left-leaning advocacy group Texas Freedom Network has objected to some proposed books' overemphasizing the influence of the Ten Commandments and other Christian tenants on the American Revolution.
"There are more than 100 pages of errors," said Kathy Miller, Freedom Network's president. Board member David Bradley, a Beaumont Republican, noted that some of the academics doing reviews for Miller's group were paid and that she was "a hired gun" because she is a registered lobbyist with the Texas Legislature.
Despite some testy moments, Mount Pleasant Republican and board vice chairman Thomas Ratliff joked that the exchanges were cordial compared to past board ideological clashes.
"We're batting a thousand," he laughed, "No one took a swing at each other."