By Robert T. Garrett
Members of Texas' State Board of Education on Wednesday narrowly rejected a plan to create a group of state university professors to scour Texas schoolchildren's textbooks for factual errors.
The vote against was 8-7, with all the board's Republicans except two opposing the measure.
The push for more experts to be involved came after more than a year of controversy over board-sanctioned books' coverage of global warming, descriptions of Islamic history and terrorism and handling of the Civil War and the importance of Moses and the Ten Commandments to the Founding Fathers.
A tipping point to add more fact checking may have come last month. A suburban Houston mom's alert that a newly approved geography text described African slaves forcibly brought to North America as "workers" set off a national furor.
At issue is whether the board should continue to rely on publishers and the public to flag errors. Currently, citizen panels nominated by the board have a narrower mission _ to determine whether a book fits into Texas' curriculum standards. Mostly, current and retired teachers sit on the panels.
Board vice chairman Thomas Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, offered the backstop panel of university professors as an amendment to a proposed overhaul of textbook approval procedures. Under his proposal, the board could set up a new panel drawn "solely from Texas institutions of higher education" to check the books for errors.
"I know that people are concerned about pointy headed liberals in the ivory tower making our process ... worse," he said. "Why wouldn't we reach out to them and say let's make sure these books are as factually accurate as possible?"
Several board conservatives, though, questioned the need for a secondary review panel.
Beaumont Republican board member David Bradley said university professors are free "to bring forth errors now," by communicating with the board.
Former board chairwoman Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, said she sees no need for a separate review. However, she acknowledged some gaps in the current system.
Content required by the curriculum guidelines "might just be 30 percent of a book," Cargill explained. In that case, citizen reviewers typically ignore the rest of the textbook, she said.
"That's where some of the errors pop up," Cargill said. Tight timelines and limited staff at the Texas Education Agency don't help. "It's frustrating," she said. "It's our heads that roll if the media find errors."
Republican members Geraldine "Tincy" Miller of Dallas, Ken Mercer of San Antonio, Marty Rowley of Amarillo and Patricia Hardy of Fort Worth opposed creating a panel of university professors.
They said a proposed rule change by Ratliff, which they tentatively adopted earlier Wednesday, should improve books' accuracy. It would require that existing panels have at least a majority of members who are deemed by the state education commissioner to have "sufficient content expertise and experience."
As one of the largest textbook purchasers in the nation, the state has a strong influence on books marketed in other states. The board _ currently 10 Republicans and five Democrats _ can change rules by a simple majority vote.
In recent years, controversies have raged over new history and social studies books.
In some books approved by the board last year, publishers kept statements that progressive groups called questionable. One was that Moses was much on the Founders' minds when they wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and that the Old Testament provided the roots of Western democracy.
Others objected to a world history book's mostly positive coverage of former Communist leaders Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong of China. Last year, the conservative groups were not as active as liberal ones, partly because the books are based on curriculum standards adopted by the state board in 2010 that reflected a more conservative view of U.S. history.
Last month, Pearland parent Roni Dean-Burren protested that a caption in a McGraw-Hill Education geography text used at her son Coby's ninth-grade geography class describes slaves abducted from Africa and shipped to North American plantations between the 1500s and 1800s as "workers."
After a social-media storm, the publisher apologized and promised to update the caption immediately in the digital textbook and as soon as possible in the book's next printed edition.
Although school districts in Texas are free to choose whatever books they want to use, most stay with the list adopted by the state board because it tracks the curriculum standards as well as questions asked on state achievement tests.
(c)2015 The Dallas Morning News