Photo: Texas Freedom Network
This week, the Texas State Board of Education held hearings to discuss the adoption of new textbooks for Texas schools. Given the SBOE's past history with creationism, all eyes were specifically on the science textbook hearings, to see whether the SBOE would let real science into Texas textbooks. Going into the hearings, things were looking good for science advocates--despite months of pressure from creationists, publishers refused to yield to their demands, and Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams recommended that all the proposed high school biology textbooks be approved without changes.
Prior to the hearings, even the creationist "think tank" spearheading the charge to remove science from Texas textbooks had conceded defeat. But those familiar with the SBOE knew it wasn't time to declare victory until the final vote was over. Well, the final vote happened on Friday afternoon, and we can now decisively say that science prevailed. The SBOE has approved all proposed science textbooks, none of which undermine evolution or climate change.
The late-night hearing on Thursday was filled with suspense, as anti-science advocates made several last-ditch attempts to get the SBOE to reject the proposed science textbooks. The first bump in the road came during discussion of a new biology textbook published by Pearson, when "an anti-evolution activist appointed to serve as an official state reviewer alleged that [the book] included nearly two dozen factual errors." Several creationist board members attempted to use this as an excuse not to adopt the book, even though the supposed "errors" only came from the one creationist reviewer, and had been thoroughly debunked by actual scientists. Pearson had repeatedly refused to make the changes demanded by creationist textbook reviewer and board members. Even board members found it ridiculous that they were being asked to assess the validity of a science textbook. Thomas Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, called the display an attempt to "hijack" the process:
"To ask me - a business degree major from Texas Tech University - to distinguish whether the Earth cooled 4 billion years ago or 4.2 billion years ago for purposes of approving a textbook at 10:15 on a Thursday night is laughable. To plop this at the 11th hour and say a book that is being used, as I understand it, in over half of the classrooms in the United States is now on the verge of 15 laypeople deciding finite and specific and specialized scientific information is hardly the best way to review a book for 5 million kids."
The SBOE eventually voted to adopt the book, but mandated a 4 week review by a panel of three scientists. Pearson retains right to withdraw its book from consideration if creationists try to get in the way of the process again.
The other bump was a surprise attack on the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) environmental science textbook by a woman named by Becky Berger. She identified herself as a geologist and oil and gas professional, [and] insisted that high schools shouldn't even teach environmental science classes." She claimed the book had several factual errors regarding fracking and carbon emissions, though state reviewers hadn't found any errors in the text, and even she couldn't provide any written documetation to substantiate her claims. She also conveniently refused to disclose she's a Republican candidate for Railroad Commission, the entity that regulates the state's oil and gas industry--she may very well have been trying to gain political points from oil and gas companies.
Some of the more conservative board members (those who also wanted to reject the Pearson bio book) chose to believe Berger over the scientists who had reviewed the book. The HMH textbook appeared to be in jeopardy. It was the only environmental science textbook up for adoption, which made further heightened the stakes. Another lengthy debate ensued, and the majority of SBOE members eventually voted to adopt the book. As part of the compromise, HMH agreed to revise the textbook again to rid it of any outdated material. However, scientists who have "reviewed the publisher's (tentative) proposed revisions were satisfied that none of the provisional changes compromised the integrity of the science in the textbook."
After Friday's final vote to adopt all science textbooks, the Texas Freedom Network, who led the fight for scientific accuracy in textbooks, released a statement praising the SBOE's actions. Said TFN President Kathy Miller:
"It's hard to overstate the importance of today's vote, which is a huge win for science education and public school students in Texas. Four years ago this board passed controversial curriculum standards some members hoped would force textbooks to water down instruction on evolution and climate change. But that strategy has failed because publishers refused to lie to students and parents demanded that their children get a 21st-century education based on established, mainstream science."
The SBOE's decision to adopt textbooks with valid science is good news not just for Texas but for most of the United States. Since Texas is one of the largest purchasers of textbooks in the nation, Texas has a great deal of influence over textbooks' content--publishers often use the Texas version of a book nationwide. Thanks to the SBOE's Friday vote, Texas kids will come one step closer to getting the science education they need and deserve.