Science Textbooks Win Approval of State Board, With an Asterisk

A new generation of science textbooks made it through the State Board of Education approval process almost—but not quite—unscathed last week. Fourteen textbooks were okayed Friday, but a 15th was given only conditional approval and must now be further reviewed by an expert panel appointed by three SBOE members. The biology textbook in question had been faulted by a creationist critic for being insufficiently skeptical of the theory of evolution and of the scientific consensus on climate change.

According to a November 22 New York Times story headlined “Texas Education Board Flags Biology Textbook Over Evolution Concerns,” three members of the State Board—“Barbara Cargill, the Republican chairwoman appointed by Gov. Rick Perry; Martha Dominguez, a Democrat from El Paso; and Sue Melton-Malone, a Republican from Waco—will select experts for the final review panel.” At the urging of several moderate SBOE members, the Board voted to require that the final reviewers must have a Ph.D. in a “related field of study” and must not have taken part in the first-round SBOE review of the book. Results of that review should be known in a few weeks.

By State Board standards of textbook controversy, last week’s tussle was mild. And therein lies the real story, one of significant change at the State Board since the SBOE brawl a few years ago over science curriculum guidelines, according to our friends at the Texas Freedom Network. TFN declared last week’s SBOE vote to adopt new science textbooks “an important victory for science education.”

TFN over the past year uncovered substantial evidence of efforts by creationist reviewers and their SBOE allies to pressure publishers to alter the scientific treatment of evolution in their textbooks. The efforts came to naught, as publishers defended the scientific basis of their texts.

The final—or nearly final—chapter in the story was written at the State Board last week, when that one biology text and another book on environmental science still came under attack. The latter book was targeted at the last minute in testimony before the State Board on Wednesday night by a hitherto-unheralded Republican candidate for the Texas Railroad Commission (which is an oil and gas regulatory agency, notwithstanding its name). Billing herself merely as an oil and gas specialist, the candidate complained that the environmental-science textbook spoke ill of the Texas oil and gas industry. However, other witnesses debunked her claims, and SBOE member Thomas Ratliff, a moderate Republican from Mount Pleasant, pointed out that the book did exactly what the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills required, outlining disadvantages as well as advantages of different sources of energy.

Other SBOE action:  The State Board on Friday approved for publication a new draft of high-school graduation requirements. By December 2 the staff of the Texas Education Agency will assemble the new draft resulting from multiple amendments adopted by SBOE members. Upon formal publication it will then be subject to a public-comment period before going back to the State Board for further possible changes and final adoption, expected in January. Texas AFT will keep you apprised of these evolving graduation rules and opportunities to comment on them.