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Ideology tops facts in Texas history curriculum, experts say

When the State Board of Education last produced history curriculum guidelines for public schools, experts complained that its members were attempting to promote religious and conservative ideology over facts.

Now the state is considering revisions to the 2010 standards, which a group of academics slammed in a report last week. Among their complaints: lessons downplaying slavery as the Civil War’s cause, exaggerating the influence of Moses on U.S. democracy, and applauding the National Rifle Association and Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America.

The report suggests some heavy editing, but it remains to be seen whether the board’s 10 Republicans and five Democrats will comply when they begin voting on rewrites in November. For years, the panel has generated attention for such things as trying to limit lessons on evolution and climate change in science textbooks.

“The best we can hope for right now is the more egregious mistakes are rectified,” one of the report’s authors, Edward Countryman, a history professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said in a conference call. “I think it’s possible.”

The report was commissioned by the Texas Freedom Network, a frequent critic of the State Board of Education, but its authors say their objections are about facts, not politics.

Their report notes how one board member in 2010 described slavery as an “after issue” and how Texas’ resulting curriculum standards suggested it was the Civil War’s third cause behind sectionalism and states’ rights. The board also asked the state’s nearly 5.4 million public school students to compare ideas from Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address with those of the one by Confederate President Jefferson Davis, which didn’t mention slavery while championing small-government values.

Authors also fault Texas’ standards for including Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson as an example of “effective leadership.”

Last year’s white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va., and subsequent efforts to remove Confederate monuments around the country have underscored debates about how the Civil War is taught in different states. But Texas’ Civil War lessons perpetuate “a historical mistruth promoted by southern apologists after the war,” the report says.

It suggests instead asking students to examine the conflict’s causes, “particularly the central role played by slavery,” and it recommends scrapping requirements that “glorify Confederate heroes.”

The report also calls for removing curriculum standards listing Moses among the people whose principles “informed the American founding documents” while trimming language suggesting that the separation of church and state wasn’t a fundamental ideal of the Constitution. It says that’s “one of the most blatant examples” of using “Texas curriculum standards to promote a political argument that is unsupported by sound scholarship” and past court cases nationwide.

“The quibble over wording here could not be more misleading,” said Emile Lester, a report co-author and political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia.

The report faults board member David Bradley, a Republican from Beaumont who isn’t seeking re-election in November, for previously offering to make a $10,000 donation to charity if anyone can find the words “separation of church and state” in the Constitution.

Reached by phone, Bradley said, “I’ve still got the money in my pocket.” The report says the Constitution’s framers intended strong separation between religion and government policy, even if it’s not specifically spelled out.

“What are the studies with university professors? That, generally, 90, 95 percent of them vote liberal Democrat?” Bradley responded. “And you’re going to complain about ideology?”

The report also sees the current standards as cheerleading too much for free-market economic systems, small government and low taxation. It recommends cutting lessons appearing to justify Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s notorious hunts for communists and asking students studying groups such as the United Nations to “evaluate efforts by global organizations to undermine U.S. sovereignty.”

And it slammed as “inaccurate and biased” requiring Texas students to learn about the 1980s and 1990s “conservative resurgence” built on the efforts of things such as the National Rifle Association and Congress’ 1994 Contract with America.

“What happened eight years ago was a political circus and a travesty,” Texas Freedom Network President Kathy Miller said. “It undermined the education of our kids and turned Texas into a national joke.”

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