Texas education board moves to delay updates to social studies curriculum after conservative pushback

(Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune, Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune)

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After facing pressure from conservatives over proposed updates to the state’s social studies curriculum scheduled for this year, the State Board of Education on Tuesday took a step to delay the revision until 2025.

Instead, the board agreed in a 7-2 preliminary vote to only adjust the curriculum with directives to comply with the state’s 2021 law targeting “critical race theory.” Those include adding civics and literacy standards. A final vote on the decision is set to take place Friday, the last day of the board’s weeklong meeting.

“This is essentially a motion that’s saying we’re giving up,” said board member Rebecca Bell-Metereau, a Democrat.

The elected board had been evaluating a recommendation that would have had Texas students spend kindergarten through second grade learning about Texas, U.S. and world history. From the third to fifth grades, students would have focused on world history. In grades sixth through eighth, students would have focused on American and Texas history.

That proposal would have eliminated dedicated years — fourth grade and seventh grade — for students to specifically study Texas history. In a separate vote on Tuesday, the board voted 8-5 in favor of using Republican board member Will Hickman’s proposed order of teaching history as a starting point. His method has children getting two dedicated years of U.S. history and two of Texas history.

The Texas Education Agency asserted that the original proposal would have increased the teaching of Texas history overall, as it would have been taught in more grade levels. But opponents argued it diminished the teaching of Texas exceptionalism.

On Monday, the Texas Freedom Caucus, a group of hardline Republican lawmakers in the state House, wrote a letter to the education board threatening legislative intervention if no “substantial changes” were made to the proposal.

“In a stunning reversal of the spirit in which the Legislature passed several reforms meant to protect children last session, the proposed changes require educators to, among other things, violate Texas laws by, for example, teaching subjects associated with critical race theory,” the letter said.

The Texas history provision was one of many changes being floated. Other proposed updates included possibly teaching second graders about Juneteenth with a book that describes George Floyd’s murder as “brutal” and “race-driven” and how the incident spurred national attention to the holiday. The LGBTQ Pride movement would have been taught in eighth grade alongside the Civil Rights and women’s liberation movements.

But while the proponents of the changes said they would be a step forward for inclusion and diversity, lawmakers and parents who spoke out in opposition this week argued that they represent the “critical race theory” and indoctrination that the state’s leadership opposes.

Board members who voted to delay the vote said they did not like the proposed order in which kids would be taught Texas, U.S. and world history, even though the board had initially accepted the framework months ago. Now, the board members said they needed more time to research and come up with a new order.

Delaying the process could allow more conservative, “anti-critical race theory” candidates to be on the State Board of Education when the standards are revisited. Several Texas Republicans against critical race theory advanced to the State Board of Education general election in November after winning their primaries this spring.

The State Board of Education, an elected 15-member board, takes up revisions to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for social studies about every decade. The curriculum sets the standards for how the state’s 5.5 million public school students of all grades learn the subject.

The debate over this year’s revisions has grown heated as conflict continues to swirl over how America’s history of racism should be taught and what books kids should be able access on campuses. State lawmakers made their move last year by passing laws to limit how America’s history of slavery and racism is taught in schools. The laws were promoted as a response to the supposed spread of “critical race theory,” an academic discipline not usually taught in schools that posits that racism is embedded in all aspects of society. Meanwhile, an organized segment of parents and school boards around the state have tried to limit diversity plans and discussions in school about LGBTQ people, claiming their children are being indoctrinated.

State Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, author of one “anti-critical race theory” law and a member of the Freedom Caucus, warned that if the State Board of Education didn’t change the proposed standards then lawmakers would take action next legislative session — or the state may sue.

During Tuesday’s meeting, most of the arguments from parents and conservative advocates complained that the draft recommendation didn’t sufficiently promote American exceptionalism, touched on critical race theory at times and wrongly included lessons on the Pride movement or the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, known as GLAAD.

Jolyn Potenza, a resident of Southlake — a Dallas-Fort Worth suburb that has become a hotspot for fights over race and education — said she and hundreds of the city’s parents oppose the recommended curriculum because it promotes a “globalist view.”

“It reduces the mention of America’s resilience, trust in God and celebration of our Declaration of Independence and freedom week,” Potenza said.

But Carisa Lopez, senior political director at the Texas Freedom Network, a left-leaning watchdog group often involved in public education issues, told board members that they should “reject the avalanche of falsehoods and misinformation” coming to them and do what is best for Texas students.

“Things have gone completely off the rails when extremists make outrageous claims and then quote the Bible,” Lopez said. “Don’t let those pushing a political agenda hijack your process at the 11th hour.”

The proposed curriculum updates include teachings on the role of the Founding Fathers and documents such as the U.S. Constitution. They call for learning the value of patriotism and include learning about Christianity and the role of Jesus. But there are also teachings about the dark parts of America’s history such as centuries of slavery and the incarceration of Japanese Americans after the Pearl Harbor attack.

Orlando Lara, a parent, said he wants his daughter to learn how to be a global citizen as well as an American one.

“Just because she’s an American citizen, it doesn’t mean she’s more important or valuable than anybody else in the world,” Lara said.

Leading up to the meeting, the Texas Freedom Caucus claimed that teaching Pride — a movement dedicated to the uplifting of LGBTQ voices, celebration of LGBTQ culture and the support of LGBTQ rights — is a “controversial” issue and thus violates state law.

That law says if a teacher talks about a controversial issue, they should explore both sides of the topic without giving preference to one side.

“The lesson is based on the assumption that the ‘pride’ movement is good for society,” the caucus members wrote.

Toth said discussions about the Pride movement should be between a child and their parents.

Mary Castle, senior policy advisor for Texas Values, a conservative organization, said the board should remove mentions of the Pride movement and GLAAD. Castle said including these mentions gives teachers space to promote advocacy and involvement in the LGBTQ community.

“We have seen the evidence of how they use this to introduce inappropriate books in the libraries and appropriate materials in the classroom,” Castle said.

But Democrats on the board questioned why the board wouldn’t include a social movement that is part of American history.

Member Marisa B. Perez-Diaz, a Democrat, also questioned how the state can teach kids to love America if their history and experiences are ignored.

“That’s a missing piece to this puzzle and part of those stories are that America hasn’t always been exceptional,” Perez-Diaz said.

Disclosure: Texas Freedom Network has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.


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