Thanks to Right-Wing Lobbying, We're Teaching a Generation of Kids to Doubt Science and History

When high school students at Gilbert Public Schools open their biology textbooks this year, they may find something missing: an entire page on pregnancy options.


Such was the decision of the Gilbert Public School Board, which voted 3-2 last week to “edit” an Honors biology textbook to bring it into accordance with a two-year old law requiring all education materials in the state to "promot[e] childbirth and adoption over elective abortion." The biology textbook in question isn’t a sex-ed coursebook, and it actually presented a survey of options from abstinence to abortofacients, but lawmakers didn’t seem too bothered by the details: the purpose of Arizona’s textbook law was to create situations just like this one, and the joy at finally being able to implement it was palpable.

"Since the change in this law was relatively recent, we are likely the first school board to proactively ensure that the legislative intent is being enforced," the board’s president said.

The ease with which a school board in Arizona edited student’s biology education, with the blessing of a state legislature, highlights textbooks as one of the most vulnerable battlegrounds of the right-wing culture wars. Allergic to controversy, school districts are extraordinarily susceptible to complaints, just a few of which can come to seem like a deluge. School boards members are often elected in dismally low-turnout elections, ceding control to a tiny sliver of the local populace, which places them at the mercy of right wing advocacy groups like the one that pushed the Arizona changes.

Students have few ways to fight back. Most of the time either the decision-making is too remote or the changes are too obscure to compel action against the school boards. Moreover student advocacy tends to focus much more on the fiscal and economic sides of higher education, namely the price tag of a college education and the crushing debt that results. Even when the discussion is narrowed to textbooks, their exorbitant costs are often more of an issue than the content being paid for. The result is a select and extreme portion can tamper with textbooks with next to no resistance.

In one town in Colorado this fall, however, that changed, when a nexus of students, teachers, and parents protested changes to the AP history curriculum in Columbine High School, and achieved results.

The contretemps came after College Board's Advanced Placement Program released new guidelines for the AP History exam that enraged conservatives who thought it was anti-American. The changes were lambasted by the Republican National Committee and conservative upstart Ben Carson warned, with characteristic hyperbole, they would make students "sign up for ISIS."

The Jefferson County School Board finally took the talking-point bait, approving instead curriculum guidelines that emphasized “positive aspects of the United States and its heritage,” including “benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights” and didn’t “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”

Teachers and students across the entire school district rebelled, accusing the school board of censorship and revisionism. Several hundred students and an overwhelming majority of teachers in two high schools staged two separate walkouts to protest the changes, causing the school district to cancel classes. (As more than one person pointed out, they were very much enacting the civil disobedience the school board was trying to erase.)

The protests drew widespread attention to the school board’s actions, which began to seem retrograde in the harsh light of the national media. It also got the attention of the College Board itself, which publicly supported the protests, saying in a statement that any course that “censors essential concepts from an Advanced Placement course, that course can no longer bear the ‘AP’ designation.”

Did it work? Sort of. After two weeks of protests and a healthy serving of unwanted national attention, the Jefferson School Board voted 3-2 to pass a “compromise” curriculum review, though how much of a compromise is in the eye of the beholder. The new review process scrapped the most provocative pro-patriot anti-protest emphasis of the curriculum and allowed for greater teacher and student input into curriculum decisions. However the new review process still answers to the same conservative board that proposed the changes in the first place, leading some to accuse the board of a bait and switch.

That’s still more action, with more results, than has usually been seen in response to textbook meddling. Can such a response be replicated, or was the Colorado walkout a one-off?

Consider the most recent battle being waged in Texas, perhaps the most famous state for conservative textbook tampering, over climate change.

This isn’t the Lone Star state’s first rodeo. Texas and its infamous State Board of Education have meddled in the textbook content of everything from Thomas Jefferson to hip hop. The newest clash is over language proposed by textbook companies to meet the SBOE’s 2010 requirements downplays humankind’s role in climate change and give the impression that there is a wide debate in the scientific community over its causes. The National Center for Science Education cited numerous problems with the proposals, including weighing an industry-funded advocacy group equally with internationally respected science organizations.

Thanks to its size, Texas has outsized importance in the world of textbooks. Major publishers don’t want to print an extra set of textbooks to cover the Texas market and so will often let the state’s SBOE lead the way on content and tailor the rest of the nation’s textbooks accordingly. (Everything really is bigger in Texas, including its sociopolitical footprint.)

Sure enough, the proposed language the NCSE cited was from two major publishers, Pearson and McGraw-Hill. In Arizona school board members were bandying about pasting in their own pages to replace the objectionable material. In Texas the whole country’s books could be rewritten.

But the size of the fight also helps inoculate the school board from direct action like that practiced in Colorado. With control over the whole state’s curriculum, the SBOE would hardly be affected by a single school district’s protest; it would take statewide action to induce change. The most effective method of influencing school boards is voting in new members, but the off-year elections lack the urgency of the Denver protest, in which students and teachers were responding to immediate, pending changes.

In other words Texas has institutionalized its textbook tampering process, and in doing so removed it from the type of pressure the students and teachers brought upon the Jefferson School Board. This makes any sort of direct response considerably more difficult.

AlterNet talked to Texas Freedom Network’s Dan Quinn, who said walkouts like the ones in Colorado were rare, but that his organization was doing everything possible to keep students and teachers informed of the changes.

"It’s unusual to see teachers and students walk out of schools to protest political interference in classroom instruction, but the stakes are certainly rising,” Quinn said. “In recent years right-wing culture warriors have been increasingly aggressive in their efforts to censor and politicize what students learn in their public schools. What’s especially frightening is the almost open contempt those activists have for expertise and facts that don’t square with their political worldviews. That makes a rational discussion about what public schools should teach almost impossible sometimes.”

Why did Colorado so successfully fight the textbook changes? If you listen to the conservative critics, it was all a crypto-union ground game. “I do think very much it’s union driven,” one local advocate said. “Of course they’re very careful in the way they organizing. You put two and two together, it’d be kind of hard to believe that that’s not the case.” (There’s no evidence the union organized the protests, though, for the record, you only have to go one district away to find the Koch brothers throwing hundreds of thousands of dollars around a school board election.)

More plausibly, Colorado represented a good confluence of circumstances allowing for direct action: the decision was made at the school board level, and the students and teachers had institutional backing in the form of the college board, which presented the changes as affecting the legitimacy of the tests. The changes proposed were also more sweeping and pronounced than in other cases; rather than subtly altering language to muddy the culprits behind climate change, the board tried to rewrite all of American history. Both alterations are insidious, but the latter was a larger, bolder target.

Students in Texas and Arizona lack such leverage. In Texas the decision process is occasional and removed, allowing for intervals of outrage but little ability to affect outcomes; meanwhile, Arizona school districts have state legislators providing them cover rather than standing up for the students. Both insulate the school boards from the type of pressure Colorado was able to bring.

The walkout in Colorado provides a template for future, and somewhat successful action against school board changes, but it remains to be seen how portable it is. In the meantime, hope is not lost for those Arizona Honors biology students: MSNBC host Rachel Maddow preserved the “edited” portions of Arizona’s biology textbook at ArizonaHonorsBiology.com, where students who happen to notice any information missing can go and find it. It’s not a walkout. But it’s a start.

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