Texas eighth graders will soon be required to learn about climate change. But not without a showdown over textbooks.

State Board of Education Member Will Hickman asks a question to Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath during a hearing Tuesday in Austin. (Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune, Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune)

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Starting next year, Texas will require that eighth graders learn about climate change as part of a science curriculum overhaul approved two years ago.

But which textbooks they’ll use to learn about it will largely depend on the state board charged with setting curriculum standards, and questions during a Tuesday meeting to hear testimony on the proposed teaching materials showed that the 15-member body — which has taken a rightward turn since 2021 — could make its decision along partisan lines.

One Republican member of the State Board of Education asked whether students ought to learn about the benefits of burning fossil fuels. Meanwhile, Democrats advocated for texts that emphasized the scientific consensus on climate change.

Dozens of publishers submitted textbook proposals for the state’s overhaul of its science curriculums. Any resident of Texas can submit written comments on the instructional materials before Oct. 30. The board plans to adopt instructional materials in November; the new science standards and textbooks will take effect at the beginning of the 2024-2025 school year.

Many critics say the new curriculum standards, called the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, don’t go far enough to teach kids that climate change is caused by human activities, primarily burning fossil fuels. And while the TEKS changes will require eighth graders to describe how human activities “can” influence climate, students won’t be required to learn about how “a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions” could mitigate climate change after the board previously declined to include that language.

Publishers can choose to include information in textbooks that go beyond the state’s new minimum requirements for teaching climate change — the question is whether the board, which strengthened its Republican majority during last year’s election, will approve such textbooks.

The board’s decision could impact how science is taught in Texas classrooms for years. And while school districts aren’t required to use board-approved textbooks, many do so for the assurance that those materials meet the state’s standards.

At least one Republican board member, Will Hickman, who represents Houston, indicated that he’d advocate for instructional materials that do not include climate change solutions in science courses. He argued those solutions would be a better fit in social studies.

Hickman also asked one testifier if the textbooks should “also include the benefits we get from burning carbon,” arguing that many facets of modern society, such as air conditioning, are powered by fossil fuels. Hickman, an attorney who was elected to the board in 2021, has worked as in-house counsel for Shell Oil Company since 2004.

The testifier, Susan Meredith, an Austin-based energy and education consultant who had testified that students should be presented with instructional materials that prepare them for climate change related jobs in the future, told Hickman he was conflating topics.

“What you’re collapsing is that electricity has to come from gas and oil, and it doesn't,” Meredith said.

Another Republican SBOE member, Pat Hardy, who represents Tarrant and Parker counties and parts of Dallas County, has previously said she wants children to learn about the good fossil fuels have done for human society, such as helping the Texas economy grow. Texas is the nation’s largest oil and gas producing state.

Texas is one of only six states that does not use the Next Generation Science Standards to guide its K-12 science curriculum. The standards — developed by states and a committee convened by the National Research Council in 2013 — emphasize that climate change is real, severe, caused by humans and can be mitigated with actions that reduce greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.

A 2020 analysis of science curriculums in all 50 states by the National Center for Science Education and the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund gave Texas an F grade for how well schools in the state taught about the scientific consensus on climate change.

Some Democrats on the board pushed back on the soft-on-fossil-fuels language proposed by their Republican colleagues.

“We absolutely should say humans do impact climate change,” said Marisa Perez-Diaz, a Democrat who represents San Antonio on the board, in an interview with The Texas Tribune. “It doesn’t have to be political — it is just fact. But I think because sometimes we get into these culture-war conversations, it blurs what should and shouldn’t go into the standards.”

Although all the textbooks that have been submitted for approval explain that climate change is happening and “can” be due to human activity, not all of them explicitly say that human activities are the primary reason or include information on how to mitigate climate change. In other words, some of the textbooks don’t say that humans will need to quickly and dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions, largely by phasing out fossil fuels, to avoid the most devastating impacts of climate change, as international climate scientists have long warned.

During the Tuesday board meeting, Perez-Diaz asked the other board members to be cautious of only supporting textbooks that meet the state’s minimum requirements and nothing more.

“When publishers take the time to include additional information past the TEKS [standards], for me, that is a text that stands out above and beyond the others,” she said.

Some educators, former teachers and education advocates are concerned that the political influence of the fossil fuel industry in Texas has prevented, and may continue to block, robust education on climate science ahead of the board’s November vote on science instructional materials.

“Climate change might be politically controversial, but the scientific consensus is clear,” said Carisa Lopez, a senior political director for Texas Freedom Network, during a Tuesday press conference. “It’s past time for the board to be clear about textbooks: that textbooks in public schools should teach the truth.”

Judy Dickey, a graduate lecturer at Texas A&M in the department of atmospheric sciences, said she thought some of the textbooks were trying to “soft-peddle” climate change by not explicitly saying humans were the cause, casting doubt on the scientific consensus or not including solutions.

But Dickey, who reviewed the textbooks for a Texas Freedom Network analysis of the proposals, said most of them did a good job of explaining climate science, treated climate change seriously and explained how it occurs.

“To me, that is a huge step forward,” said Dickey, who was previously a science teacher in Florida. “I was pleasantly surprised. … It was nice to see that no one was trying to pretend it was volcanoes.”

One 11th-grade student who testified during the Tuesday meeting, Marygrace Beinke, said none of her teachers have ever told her that climate change is a hoax or that evolution isn’t real. She emphasized to the board that all students in Texas should be given the opportunity to learn about those topics, which she said have reinforced her faith in God.

“I’ve never felt closer to God as when I’ve been learning about how fragile, beautiful and complex our Earth is,” Beinke told the board.

Geoff Carlisle, who taught eighth-grade science at a KIPP school in Austin for a decade, said in an interview with the Tribune that like Beinke’s teachers, he taught his students about climate change, even though it was not required by the state’s standards. Carlisle incorporated information about climate science into his own lesson plans — something he said most teachers in Texas don’t likely have the time or resources to do.

He said many of his students understood that climate change was happening and that it might have something to do with burning fossil fuels, but they could not explain the greenhouse gas effect or what role burning fossil fuels had in it. He wants the state to go further and require climate science to be taught at all levels. Other states, such as New Jersey, have such standards.

“When I think about the alarming emergency that our students are going to face or are facing, it’s unethical to not be talking about this in all grade levels,” Carlisle said. “Our students deserve the right to understand what’s happening.”

Brian Lopez contributed to this story.

Disclosure: Texas Freedom Network has been financial supporters 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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