Education board rejects idea of expert textbook review panel

A man testifies before the State Board of Education in Austin last year.
A man testifies before the State Board of Education in Austin last year. AP archives

Weeks after a Houston-area mother sparked an uproar over a caption in her son’s ninth-grade textbook that inaccurately described African slaves as “workers,” the State Board of Education tentatively approved several changes in its textbook adoption process.

However, the 15-member elected board on Wednesday narrowly rejected a proposal that would have given it the option of creating an expert panel for the sole purpose of identifying errors in textbooks.

The board, which oversees the textbook adoption process, voted 7-8 against an amendment proposed by its vice chairman, Thomas Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, who often clashes with more conservative Republican members.

Those members, including David Bradley of Beaumont and Geraldine Miller of Dallas, blasted Ratliff’s proposal Wednesday, saying it would send a signal that the current textbook adoption process isn’t sound and unnecessarily add an additional layer of bureaucracy to the process.

They also took issue with a provision in the amendment that said the state’s education commissioner could appoint Texas-based academics to the panel, with at least one board member noting the “philosophical differences” that often emerge between the board and professors who review proposed textbooks.

“I don’t want to send a message that the current system or the current committee, that, well, they’re not that important,” Miller said.

Academics and members of the public from across the political spectrum detailed what they perceived as crucial flaws — or omissions — in the social studies textbooks the board approved last fall, including inaccurate descriptions of world religions and out-of-date racial terminology. Publishers made dozens of changes in response to that input.

Ratliff quipped Wednesday that he knows “people are concerned about pointy-headed liberals in their ivory towers” getting more involved, but said that creating the option of having such a review panel would demonstrate that the board is concerned about errors and actively doing something to address them. The proposal is something of a backpedal for Ratliff, who defended the textbooks last month and described an error trumpeted by Pearland mother Roni Dean-Burren as an “isolated incident.”

“I still agree the mistake was an isolated incident, but our process can always be improved,” Ratliff told The Texas Tribune.

All five Democrats on the board voted for Ratliff’s proposal, along with Tom Maynard, R-Florence. Newly appointed board Chairwoman Donna Bahorich voted with seven other Republicans in opposition.

While the board rejected Ratliff’s amendment Wednesday, it gave preliminary approval to several other changes to its textbook adoption process — including easing public participation and clarifying the board’s power to penalize publishers for errors.

A Texas Education Agency spokeswoman said the modifications did not stem from the October controversy, but that “new staff over that area wanted to clean up and update this rule.”

Board member Marty Rowley, R-Amarillo, who voted against Ratliff’s amendment, said those other changes “will remedy the issues that maybe [Ratliff’s amendment] is designed to address.”

“I just want to speak in opposition to the proposed amendment, but also in support of our current system because I think we’re making it stronger and better and more expert-laden than it has been in the past,” he said before the vote.

The modifications will help “somewhat” with identifying inaccuracies, but Ratliff said he “would have preferred a panel solely charged with factual errors rather than the shotgun approach of looking for everything.”

“At the end of the day, the process will be better than it is today,” he said. “Live to fight another day.”

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