Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Austin book-scrubbing club

They remind me of the springer spaniel I once knew who fell in love with a moldy piece of rug.

The fight put up last week by the social conservatives on the State Board of Education reminded me of the bared-teeth tug of war that ensued when someone tried to take that piece of rug away.

The teeth were bared last week.

Gov. Rick Perry signed a bill expanding the use of electronic textbooks despite calls for its veto by conservatives on the board.

The issue, not surprisingly, is control.

Power over textbooks is these ideologues' love rug. They have rolled on it, chewed on it, barked at interlopers seeking to place a hand on it.

The bill in question would leave the board in an advisory capacity only regarding state-funded electronic textbooks. The commissioner of education would sign off on them when they are chosen by local school districts.

Imagine: local control of school materials. What a dangerous precedent. The next thing you know, nude mud wrestling will be a core academic subject.

What's more, said a press release by opponents, "This bill will turn a thoughtful, systematic process that now exists for approving printed textbooks into a bureaucratic and disreputable process fraught with numerous opportunities to misdirect and harm our students because of the lack of elected and parental oversight."

Yes, the current process is "thoughtful." And Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a "Renaissance poet."

The only thing "systematic" about the Texas textbook process is the systematic efforts of religious-right conservatives to use it to their ends.

It's been that way ever since the late '70s when the state board was being cowed by Longview textbook monitors Mel and Norma Gabler. Demonstrating that the index finger is mightier than the sword, the Gablers once challenged a social studies textbook because it showed a woman with a briefcase — yes, violating God's commands by escaping the kitchen.

With Texas being the second-largest bulk purchaser of textbooks behind California, the Gablers had an influence on classrooms across the country. Fortunately, in 1995 the Legislature took away the board's ability to expunge particular references in books based on hints and allegations. The board could only reject errors or material that strayed from the state's essential elements.

That hasn't prevented the board's right-tilting majority from getting publishers' attentions with tantrums over textbook themes deemed "un-American" and "anti-family," and which are neither.

Interestingly, upon Perry's signing of the bill, we saw a telling divide between those of the Republican persuasion who believe "government is my shepherd" and those who, in fact, believe in less government and, heavens, "local control."

The Texas Association of Business praised the new legislation. So did the Texas Business and Education Coalition.

Supporters are excited about tapping a new dimension of educational materials.

The controlling clique on our state school board reminds one of the Chinese leaders who increasingly are seeking to put controls on what people can read on the Internet.

They are consumed with fear over the notion that information might be at schoolchildren's fingertips that the textbook monitors haven't already pawed over.

In Beijing, in Tehran, in Austin, "conservative" isn't about libertarianism or intellectual freedom. It's about just the opposite. I do detect, however, that some libertarians who call themselves conservative now have come to realize that the word has been hijacked.

That is why the Texas Legislature came close to pulling the state school board's teeth this session with a sunset bill. That is why we can expect to see the body's role and relevance eroded in future sessions. The board is not nearly as interested in students and education as it is in moldy remnants of power.

John Young writes for the Waco Tribune-Herald. E-mail: jyoung@grandecom.net.

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