We were among the many reporters and stakeholders packed into a small hearing room at the state Capitol last Wednesday to hear testimony on the State Board of Education from a host of witnesses before the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. While the nation scoffs at our great state as a whole for allowing our SBOE to become a stomping ground (con dinosaurs!) of ideologues, we in San Antonio can at least say, 'hey, we tried.'
San Antonio-based state representatives Trey Martinez Fischer (MALC chair), David Leibowitz and Ruth Jones McClendon all attended, and San Antonio academics, activists, advocates, and teachers occupied 12 of the 28 testimony slots, during the nine hours-long hearing partially proposed as a reaction to the SBOE ending public testimony before many of these same stakeholders had a chance to speak before them.
Many of the speakers, like LULAC president Rosa Rosales, came to vent about the treatment minorities received in the social studies standards now being slated for official recommendation in May. In the ideological rope-pull that passes for crafting educational standards during SBOE meetings, several media outlets shocked the nation by reporting the Board passed amendments removing Thomas Jefferson from a list of enlightenment thinkers, amping up the importance of the Conservative movement, and most egregiously to us here, removing Tejano Alamo defenders. "Now, we're here in 2010 and we're still fighting for inclusion," mourned Rosales. Later in the hearings, Manuel Rodriguez Jr., president of the Mexican American School Board Association, choked up when recalling the only Hispanic heroes he learned about in school were Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, and feared, like Rosales, that the standards rolled back decades of equality.
However, other testimonies, including that of Texas Education Agency Commissioner Robert Scott, challenged the notion that the conservative bloc of seven on the 15-member board actively whitewashed history. Commissioner Scott noted that Jefferson had never been included in the Enlightenment thinker section of Texasï¿½ social studies standards, and was included elsewhere in the standards. He noted most states "even Virginia, home of Monticello" didn't put Jefferson on this list.
The SBOE's true crime according to many professors and teachers isn't in the deletions, but the additions. In fact, many deletions corrected repetition in the bloated standards. Currently, the proposed revisions for high school social studies fill 77 pages, complete with strike-throughs marked for deletion. Dr. Francisco de la Teja, a Texas State professor who served as an expert reviewer for the social studies, warned of "the impossibly large set of standards," that could cause even more teaching to the test as these standards dictate not only what must be in the textbook, but also on the state's standardized tests. Many of these standards come not at the behest of the expert panels, and we use 'expert' very lightly, but as amendments submitted after the panels' conclusion. We wrote last week of one such amendment, discovered by Democratic SBOE District 3 (that's us) candidate Michael Soto, written by former SBOE chairman Don McLeroy, who lifted it from a UCLA graduate student and (shudder) wikipedia.org. Meanwhile, a number of professional educators complained they felt their input was ignored.
To the more than 23 members present at the MALC hearing, (all Democrats right now, but, ostensibly a bi-partisan caucus), the amendment process smacked of the arrogance they heard testimony on all day long. And if there's one thing legislators can't stand, it's anyone but themselves acting like know-it-alls. "This process needs fixing, bud," State Rep. Leibowitz advised Commissioner Scott, setting the tone for the rest of the day.
Particularly annoying to the lawmakers was the lack of a single SBOE member present to explain their actions. The Eastside's Ruth Jones McClendon attended hearings long enough to ask Commissioner Scott for the whereabouts of SBOE chairwoman Gail Lowe, a member of the conservative bloc. "Many of my questions should be directed to her," she said. "Because this is so important to the people of Texas, maybe she's in the audience somewhere?" asked McLendon, elegantly arching an eyebrow. No dice.
After the hearings, we spoke with Martinez Fischer, who admitted MALC's attention to the SBOE came initially, "because we were fearful of the Latino representation...once we were there we were very surprised to learn a little of the process," which was described by one witness as "flying by the seat of their pants."
Though the legislature will not convene until January, Martinez Fischer sounded confident of change once SBOE elections occur (we heard from candidates Soto and a sensible, apparently moderate Republican Thomas Ratliff, both with strong odds to win in November). Even if the new board decides not to override the textbooks, he believes with enough MALC members, fellow Democrats and fiscally-conservative GOP legislators he can build a consensus strong enough to challenge the SBOE's investment of $800 million (of tax-payer dollars) in textbooks, and restraining the Board to an oversight-only position. "We never intended politicians to write curriculum," said Martinez Fischer.