The SBOE: Contempt for Teachers and the Law

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We told you on Monday that the House Public Education Committee had scheduled a hearing for 9 a.m. this morning about the State Board of Education. Ryan Valentine, the Texas Freedom Network’s deputy director, is testifying for TFN today. Here’s an excerpt:

Over the past 13 years, and especially in the past 12 months, we have watched the state board’s focus on educating Texas schoolchildren become diverted with unnecessary and divisive debates over politics and the personal agendas of some of its members. The board has become increasingly dysfunctional. Its important work has become bogged down and undermined by secretive political maneuvering that is arrogantly disrespectful of teachers, of established rules and open processes, and even of the law itself.

Testimony by TFN Deputy Director Ryan Valentine
before the Texas House Committee on Public Education
July 16, 2008

The Texas Freedom Network is an organization of 30,000 religious and community leaders who support public education, religious freedom and individual liberties. Since our founding in 1995, the Texas Freedom Network has monitored the work of the State Board of Education. We attend nearly every meeting and often testify at hearings before the board. We also work with teachers and other educators who should play a critical role in helping the state board develop wise policies that help Texas schoolchildren succeed.  Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for holding this important hearing today.

Over the past 13 years, and especially in the past 12 months, we have watched the state board’s focus on educating Texas schoolchildren become diverted with unnecessary and divisive debates over politics and the personal agendas of some of its members. The board has become increasingly dysfunctional. Its important work has become bogged down and undermined by secretive political maneuvering that is arrogantly disrespectful of teachers, of established rules and open processes, and even of the law itself.

The contempt for classroom teachers has been particularly troubling. The recent revision of the state’s curriculum standards for language arts and reading offers a prime example.

Teachers and curriculum experts, working at the direction of the state board and the Texas Education Agency, toiled for more than two years to develop new standards. They relied not only on the best, most up-to-date research, but also on the best practices of some of the state’s most experienced educators.

Yet in the end, the chairman and his allies on the board – none of whom are full-time educators – brazenly cast aside that work. They voted instead for standards that teachers and education experts warned were outdated and failed to reflect the changing demographics of the state, the clear findings of substantial research and the best practices of classroom teachers today.

Then some of those board members even bragged in the press about having “spanked” teachers, who had the temerity to lobby for standards they knew would best help Texas students succeed. Even more galling was that many of those teachers had worked on the curriculum revision committees appointed by the state board itself.

The board’s contempt for teachers has been matched by its contempt for established rules and open, informed debate. In recent months we have seen the chairman and his allies force votes on last-minute surprise motions regarding documents that haven’t been debated, much less studied, by the full board. This is not how you develop wise public policies on education.

In May, for example, a handful of board members – we have no idea how many — patched together a new language arts curriculum document overnight, then slipped it under hotel room doors just hours before the full board was to take a final vote. When other board members insisted that they be able to debate this new version, the chairman accused them of simply trying to slow down the process.

But perhaps most troubling of all is the contempt some board members have for the law and lawmakers.

As you know, in 1995 the Legislature passed Senate Bill 1, part of which took away the ability of the state board to edit textbook content. The Legislature acted because state board members were demanding that publishers make hundreds of changes to textbooks submitted for approval. Many of those demands were based on nothing more than the personal beliefs of board members.

Those revisions were so expensive that frustrated publishers were becoming increasingly reluctant even to submit textbooks for approval in Texas. That would limit textbook options for local school districts. To counter that, Senate Bill 1 barred the state board from rejecting any textbook unless that textbook failed to meet most of the established statewide curriculum standards, contained factual errors or failed to meet manufacturing requirements. Two state attorneys general, Dan Morales and Greg Abbott, have upheld those limits in separate opinions.

Yet last fall the state board thumbed its nose at the Legislature by rejecting a third-grade mathematics textbook without stating any reason – much less a reason permitted by statute – for doing so. In fact, members who voted to reject that textbook claimed they were not required to provide any reason. Then Chairman McLeroy was quoted in the press as saying the vote set a precedent for how the board would handle future textbook adoptions.

The state board is also threatening to ignore the explicit directions of this committee as well. In 2007 this committee voted unanimously to revise House Bill 1287 to require that the state board develop specific curriculum standards for elective high school courses about the influence of the Bible in history and literature. This committee and the full Legislature did so because research showed school districts using existing vague, very general standards for such courses are more likely to run into constitutional problems that threaten the religious freedom of students and their families.

Yet the state board is moving to adopt those same vague, very general standards for all courses about the Bible. A final vote could come as early as this week.

The arrogance of this state board under Chairman McLeroy’s leadership is astonishing. Many board members themselves have been appalled at the full board’s contempt for teachers, for rules and for the law, and they have expressed their frustration publicly.

We believe it is time for something to change dramatically at the SBOE. Too many of its members are more interested in fighting culture war battles based on their personal and political beliefs than in ensuring that all Texas public school students get the quality education they deserve.

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