By Emily Manna, Arab American Institute
June 18, 2012
Boards of education are not typically the scene of heated political races, but this year’s Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) election will be a notable exception. Because many textbooks used nationwide are printed in Texas, the decisions made by that state’s board resonate across the country and affect the education of millions of children. The Texas SBOE, as a result, has become a battleground for politicians who wish to impose partisan and ideologically-driven information on America’s schoolchildren, irrespective of long-held tenets such as the separation of church and state.
With all of the SBOE’s seats up for election this year, however, many see an opportunity to stop the intrusion of politics into the planning of the Texas – and national – curriculum.
In 2010, the board stirred controversy with its passage of new textbook guidelines which sought to emphasize the Christian influence on the founding of the Untied States, as well as to adjust the nation’s historical narrative to focus on the contributions of conservative groups and individuals rather than those perceived as more left-leaning. Members of the board defended the new standards as a correction from the liberal-dominated textbooks of the past, but many education officials criticized the decision as “politicizing education” and injecting religious beliefs into public schools.
Included in those curriculum changes was a re-telling of the history of religions to downplay violence committed by Christians (such as during the Crusades) and emphasize the violence of certain Muslim leaders. Very few distinctions were made between Arabs and Muslims, resulting in breathtaking misinformation which may well serve to promote bigotry and ignorance among American youth.
The board also wanted to ensure that students could “explain how Arab rejection of the State of Israel has led to ongoing conflict,” thus ignoring repeated Arab-led efforts to resolve the conflict and planting responsibility for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict squarely on the shoulders of Arab countries. As Gail Collins wrote recently, these one-sided lessons “appeared to be pretty much all young people in Texas were going to be required to know about Arab nations and the world’s second-largest religion.”
This year, the Texas Freedom Network (TFN) is trying to change all that. TFN is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving religious freedom in Texas and monitoring the state’s public education. Dan Quinn, TFN’s Communications Director, calls this year’s election a “once in a decade opportunity to shape public education for a generation.” 2014 will bring the next batch of social studies textbooks, and the SBOE that is elected this November will be the board in charge of approving those new textbooks, which won’t be renewed again for a decade.
“Over the next two years,” Quinn continued, “the adoption of science and social studies textbooks will show whether the government of Texas is focused on the education of kids or the promotion of a political agenda.” Quinn explained that some right-wing politicians in Texas often use Islamophobia and support of Israel, through education, to garner favor among Evangelicals and conservative party leaders, taking advantage of the fact that most voters overlook the “sleepy corner” of education in Texas government. TFN hopes to raise awareness among voters on what’s at stake in an election to which they normally pay little mind. From voter guides to voter registration drives to student-led groups on college campuses, TFN is giving Texans – especially Arab Americans – another important reason to get out and vote this November.