AUSTIN — Texas public schools had little say in 1995 when the state demanded that publishers make sweeping changes to health textbooks to de-emphasize contraception, or six years later when it raised objections that a textbook wasn’t skeptical enough about global warming.
They had little recourse in subsequent years, when state objections were raised about religious matters in social studies textbooks and other science books’ explanation of evolution.
The State Board of Education is again sparking fierce debate as it begins a public hearing Tuesday on how the next round of science textbooks will address issues such as intelligent design versus evolution and climate change.
But this time a law is in place that gives school districts the freedom to choose their own instructional materials including software, electronic readers or textbooks with or without board approval.
How much they stray from the endorsement list may largely depend on what books the board approves for the next decade.
Already, though, some volunteer citizen committees that reviewed proposed textbooks for the state’s 5-plus million public school students have raised ideological objections and urged publishers to make appropriate edits.
“When we actually get the materials in front of us and go through the rubric, if it meets our needs, we’ll decide if a textbook is the way to go or if we need to go to another avenue,” said Kim Slough, who handles textbook purchases for the Abilene Independent School District. “We just want what’s best for our students.”
Previously, the board not only set the state curriculum but also approved textbooks that could be used to teach the lessons over the next 10 years. But the Legislature passed a law in 2011 that allowed the state’s more than 1,000 public school districts to decide what books and materials they wish to purchase.
So far, the vast majority of districts have continued to buy state-endorsed books — but that trend may not hold forever. Because Texas approves two-year budgets, the rule change was still very new when funding for books was available in 2011, said Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.
Now the Legislature has earmarked more than $419 million annually for the next two years for the purchase of classroom materials, including new and replacement books, technology and staff training.
“We think we will see a shift more gradually as districts become more comfortable with all the options they will have now,” Ratcliffe said.
In the meantime, publishers submitted 15 high school biology books for board approval. Ratliffe said volunteer citizens committees — tasked with advising the board of education — have recommended approval of seven of those.
After it hears this week’s public testimony, the 15-member board is expected to decide in November which books to approve.
To win board sanction, a book is required to cover at least half of the state-mandated curriculum requirements for each subject area — a much lower bar than in years past when books needed to cover nearly all the curriculum.
But state education records show some of the reviewers — consisting of university science experts but also others with backgrounds in unrelated fields — have raised several objections to some of the proposed texts.
Some asked for edits that stress evolution is only a theory and that some scientists remain skeptical about climate change.
According to reviewer comments obtained by the progressive watchdog group Texas Freedom Network, one committee member even suggested “creation science” be covered in all biology textbooks.
The Texas Freedom Network said it will have science experts testify Tuesday to ensure ideology doesn’t creep into textbooks. Conservative activists may tell the board the books should de-emphasize lessons on evolution to leave room for the idea that a higher power created the universe.
Others could argue books have focused too much on climate change.
Through the years, such fights have thrust the Texas Board of Education into the national spotlight, including the board’s past decisions on health books, and its decision 12 years ago that proposed environmental science books didn’t sufficiently stress skepticism on global warming.
When it tackled overhauling the science curriculum in 2009, meanwhile, the board sparked outcry when it decided that students be required to examine “all sides of scientific evidence” for matters such as evolution. The following year, the board tweaked social studies curriculums statewide so that young Texans are taught that America’s founding fathers were guided by Christian principles.
But while Republicans still comprise two-thirds of the board, the bloc of social conservatives that previously helped reshape curriculums and modify textbooks no longer holds a majority. This could mean arguments over the content of science textbooks could be tamer this time.
“It’s a far different board today,” said Thomas Ratliff, a Mount Pleasant Republican who in 2010 defeated Don McLeroy, a former board chairman who helped lead the social conservative bloc.
But Ratliff also said he’s bothered when critics brand conservatives with strong religious beliefs “creationists.” He said he considers himself a creationist who also believes in evolution.
“It’s not an ‘either or’ discussion,” Ratliff said. “For me, it just comes down to experts who should decide. I don’t want business people making decisions about scientific theory the same way I don’t want scientists trying to dictate what goes in to a business-marketing textbook.”