by Mary Tuma
The 15-member Texas State Board of Education. Photo courtesy of Texas Education Agency.
“I understand the National Academy of Science's [sic] strong support of the theory of evolution. At the same time, this is a theory. As an educator, parent, and grandparent, I feel very firmly that ‘creation science’ based on Biblical principles should be incorporated into every Biology book that is up for adoption,” wrote one reviewer overseeing books from publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
The review comments, obtained by watchdog organization the Texas Freedom Network, also signaled an effort to question climate change and the evolutionary fossil record and promote intelligent design, recommendations refuted by findings from the National Academy of Sciences to NASA– not to mention the U.S. constitution–as TFN points out. According to a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Edwards v. Aguillard, teaching creationism in science classes at public schools is unconstitutional.
“In reality we don't know what climate change will do to species diversity.
Question seems to imply that ecosystems will be disrupted which qwe [sic] simply don't know yet,” wrote reviewer Ray Bohlin, a fellow with the religious, intelligent-design peddling Discovery Institute and vice-president of Vision Outreach for Plano-based Probe Ministries.
Bohlin also continually referenced literature from a leader of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, while failing to disclose his ties to the group, say TFN. The book he cites was once described in an evangelical science journal as, “not good science, nor science in any meaningful sense.”
The list of members on the influential panel overseeing 14 textbooks read like a who’s who in the pseudo-science sector. In a background check of the evolution-denying dream team, TFN flagged six creationist/“intelligent design” supporters. Take Ide Trotter, a retired chemical engineer who serves as spokesperson for creationist group (painfully un-ironically titled) Texans for Better Science Education, a group that lobbied in 2009 to maintain the teaching of “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution in Texas school curriculum. Also in the mix is Walter Bradley, a former Baylor University professor who wrote a seminal intelligent design book in the '80s and serves as a founding fellow at the Discovery Institute. More than one reviewer is listed as a “Darwin Skeptic” in the Creation Science Hall of Fame.
The anti-evolution panelists heavily reflect the view of the board itself. SBOE Chair Barbara Cargill (R-The Woodlands), appointed by conservative Gov. Rick Perry, advocated for diluting evolution standards in 2009. (No surprise there as one of her predecessors is young earth creationist, Don McLeroy.) San Antonio SBOE member Ken Mercer is notorious for his extremist conservatism and muddled defense of creationism. In a rejection of evolutionary biology, Mercer rhetorically– and confusingly– asked, “Have you ever seen a dog-cat, or a cat-rat?”
“Once again culture warriors on the state board are putting Texas at risk of becoming a national laughingstock on science education,” TFN President Kathy Miller said in a statement. “What our kids learn in their public schools should be based on mainstream, established science, not the personal views of ideologues, especially those who are grossly unqualified to evaluate a biology textbook in the first place.”
Assigned to critique biology textbooks, a handful of board-nominated reviewers hope to dilute the teaching of evolution. Photo by Mary Tuma
The requirements to become a reviewer are lax to non-existent. Attempts to tighten qualifications of the SBOE-nominated panelists have routinely failed, leading to under-qualified and flat-out unqualified candidates and ideologically minded participants. The majority of biology reviewers on the panel today were a parting gift from outgoing creationist and former board chair Gail Lowe, who was ousted from her SBOE spot in the last election.
Tasked with evaluating the books virtually first, reviewers were then corralled by the Texas Education Agency– which oversees the SBOE–for an in-person review session. Only 12 out of 28 biology textbook panelists attended the early August meeting.
“There wasn’t a great deal of experience in terms of teaching or subject matter. So you had people reviewing them and sending in comments that tended to be more ideological than pedagogical,” Ryan Valentine, TFN’s deputy director, told the Current.
Behind Closed Doors
Aside from a shortage of expertise, the textbook review process is coming under scrutiny for lack of transparency. Conversations among the panelists are happening away from public earshot and negotiations over which changes to accept or reject between publishers and the panelists are made completely behind closed doors. In fact, the reviewers’ comments only came to light through a formal records request made by TFN– otherwise the public would only be able to evaluate the first, unedited drafts by publishers. (The Current has also placed a similar records request.) The public is allotted only two interspersed days for feedback– next Tuesday in Austin the board will meet to hear citizen testimony and again in November at a date not yet set, said Texas Education Agency spokesperson Debbie Ratcliffe. And finally, the publishers’ changes will not be made public until after the board approves them. Ratcliffe says the agency is internally negotiating getting the revisions out to the public before a final vote, but couldn't provide a definite answer at press time.
Fairly new San Antonio SBOE member Marisa Perez– a once elusive candidate– tells the Current her constituents have expressed worry over extended and “uncomfortable communication” between chair Cargill and the reviewers during a panel meeting in mid-July. Board members are allowed to attend the panel meetings, ask questions and even converse with nominated reviewers, but aren’t allowed to give personal perspectives or sway panelists in any way. The amount of time Cargill spent chatting with the reviewers prompted cause for concern from Perez’s constituents, she said. The Democrat, who took office at the start of this year, represents 12 districts and parts of Bexar and Hidalgo counties.
“For me, the most important thing is that this is a very transparent process,” said Perez. “And so to hear these concerns from constituents is alarming to me because her intent could very well have been innocent, however regardless of her intent, it doesn’t look that way to people.”
She added, “For so long, science has been this very contentious topic, so need to be even more transparent with the public about how we review these texts.”
The SA representative confronted Cargill with those concerns during the last SBOE hearing, to which Cargill responded her goal in meeting with each table was simply to thank panelists. “Plus, I’m a science teacher so I love listening to all the science talk. So regardless of what was interpreted by people who were there, or weren’t there, that was my goal,” Cargill said at the time.
But in a damning letter from self-appointed reviewer Jimmy Gollihar, a scientist and University of Texas at Austin doctoral student, it appears Cargill’s actions drew concern from not only constituents, but also those sitting at the table:
“I and other members of my group [
] were taken aback by the sheer amount of time spent with other panel members, especially those who might reasonably be regarded as creationists. From our vantage, Ms. Cargill was clearly trying to steer the independent review process by providing specific guidance and direction to the two other teams. She appeared to be pointing to specific locations within certain texts and encouraging the members of the panel to recommend changes to the publishers. It is our understanding that the review process should be absent of any undue influence from SBOE members.
As an example, we were uneasy about having seen Ms. Cargill opening books for review in the corridor outside of the review area. When I and other panel members approached her, she indicated that she “had to do it the old-fashioned way,” by reading the hard copy of the book. This was puzzling, given that we assumed that we were the experts being asked to review the book, not her. Moreover, any demurs about providing general guidance were sort of obviated by this detailed examination of the materials to hand.”
Gollihar described the review process overall as “either broken or corrupt.” In his letter, sent to TFN by an SBOE member, Gollihar also signaled disappointment with the panelists’ lack of background knowledge as well frustration with having to fact-check erroneous scientific claims, “[
] even beyond obviously ideologically-derived comments on the materials many of the comments found littered throughout those reviews make no sense whatsoever from a scientific viewpoint and area absolutely not germane to the content prescribed in the TEKS [Texas curriculum standards].”
As for the reviewers, Perez says, “We wouldn’t choose anyone but an architect to review blueprints. We need to focus on fact and research and be mindful of who we select.”
“The idea of creationism versus evolution has been a divisive topic for such a long time. I think it’s just this conservative ploy to inject politics at the cost of children’s education and we need to put a stop to that,” she said.
“Regardless of our personal ideologies we are in a role where we need to prepare our children for the future. When we review these books, we need to ultimately ask, ‘Is this going to prepare out kids for higher ed, for the workforce, and are they going to be competitive with those outside Texas? If the answer is no, it shouldn’t even be a topic of discussion.”
Unlike her SA board counterpart, noted conservative Ken Mercer, Perez doesn’t waver or make ambiguous her support for evolution as a basic foundational principle of science.
While it’s true that the textbooks could be used in Texas public schools for the next decade and many point to the SBOE’s national influence in the textbook market, its power seems to be waning. A 2011 Texas law granted local school districts the ability to purchase books not found on the SBOE-approved list with state dollars, meaning school districts are no longer shackled into buying books engineered by a socially conservative faction. Additionally, with the advent of online and open-source instructional materials, districts see greater freedom.
“The State Board is no longer driving the boat when it comes to what districts have to choose from,” former San Antonio SBOE member Michael Soto told the Current. “And publishers don’t have to worry as much about board members picking books that don’t suit their political hobby horse.”
The effects of the law could very well erode the board’s widespread impact over time–but in the short term, they still wield sizable control.
While an expectedly heated public debate is set to take place on Tuesday, the SBOE won’t vote on which books to use until November, so publishers still have time to reject the controversial suggestions–albeit largely cloaked from the public in the interim.
“It will be really interesting to see how this all plays out in the end,” says Soto. “At least, mainstream reputable publishers aren’t going to want to rock the boat. I expect there will be a lot of noise from fringe elements in Austin but the end result will be relatively familiar.”