State Board of Education under fire over Alamo curriculum

Updated Sept 11, 2018
State Board of Education member Marisa B. Perez-Diaz, a Democrat, speaks in support of the Texas Freedom Network renewing their fight to have the board change the curriculum standards outside the William B. Travis Building during a the education board’s meeting Tuesday. (Stephen Spillman / For American-Statesman)

Heeding concerns by conservatives that the State Board of Education is trying to water down how Texas history is taught in middle school, a board-nominated committee has backtracked on a recommendation to remove references to heroes and a letter by William B. Travis in lessons about the Alamo.

More than 60 people signed up to testify before the board Tuesday to express concerns about proposed changes to the state’s social studies curriculum standards, particularly those that address the Alamo, slavery, the civil rights movement and references to Judeo-Christianity in American history.

The curriculum standards serve as the framework for history, government and economics textbooks and lessons for the state’s 5.4 million public school students.

Multiple board-nominated committees, made up mostly of educators, met this year as part of a broader effort to streamline curriculum standards across subject areas. The board is expected to take a preliminary vote Wednesday on whether to accept changes to the social studies curriculum.

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Elected officials and others spoke against the recommendation to change the curriculum standard that reads, “explain the issues surrounding significant events of the Texas Revolution, including the Battle of Gonzales, William B. Travis’s letter ‘To the People of Texas and All Americans in the World,’ the siege of the Alamo, and all the heroic defenders who gave their lives there.”

One of the board’s committees this spring had recommended removing the reference to the letter as well as heroic defenders.

“These are the most famous words in all of Texas history,” U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Houston, told the board after reading an excerpt from Travis’ letter on Tuesday. “I cannot fathom any possible way that one can teach Texas history without teaching William Barrett Travis’ plea to the people of Texas and all Americans and the world.”

Travis, the commander of the Texian rebels at the Alamo, sent the letter to ask for help as he was being surrounded by Mexican forces. The missive is said to have inspired many of the volunteers who ended up joining the army that Sam Houston later led to defeat Mexican forces.

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Stephen Cure, former Texas State Historical Association’s director of education and a member of one of the board committees, said the panel, looking for areas to streamline, thought the language was redundant because it’s impossible to learn about the siege of the Alamo without learning about the letter or its defenders.

Under pressure, a majority of his colleagues on the committee said they would be willing to change its recommendation, Cure said Tuesday.

“The outcry from the people of Texas said that they felt it should be in there and, from the committee’s perspective, we felt that it was better to make a productive recommendation,” Cure said.

The new curriculum standard with the restored language now reads that students must learn about the siege of the Alamo, including Travis’ letter and “the heroism of the diverse defenders who gave their lives there.”

Civil War causes

The last time the board changed the social studies curriculum was in 2010, when liberal groups criticized the Republican-dominated board for advancing what they believed to be inaccurate views on history.

The liberal Texas Freedom Network, as well as scholars, want the board this time around to change the curriculum standards to emphasize slavery as the central cause of the Civil War. They want states’ rights and sectionalism removed as other reasons for the war. Such information can be found in the fifth-, seventh- and eighth-grade social studies curriculum standards.

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“Slavery and more specifically the debate over the expansion of slavery was the primary cause of the war,” said Shirley Thompson, a University of Texas associate professor of American studies. “This is settled historical knowledge. … Sectionalism was an auxiliary cause related to slavery, and states’ rights was the after-the-fact justification for secession and subsequently the cornerstone of racist mythology.”

Texas Freedom Network also has issues with the requirement that eighth-graders analyze Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ inaugural address alongside speeches by President Abraham Lincoln.

Judeo-Christian

Other concerns raised about the social studies curriculum standards include:

• Students are asked to “evaluate” changes that came about as a result of the civil rights movement. The board committee wants the students to “identify” those changes.

• The high school U.S. history portion points to southern Democrats as opponents of the civil rights movement, neglecting to identify opponents who were Republicans, such as U.S. Sens. John Tower of Texas and Barry Goldwater of Arizona.

• The committee deleted the Holocaust as a major event of World War II, although the Holocaust is mentioned in another lesson about genocide.

• The exclusion of the work of Hispanic activists like Dolores Huerta.

The board’s work groups recommend deleting “Judeo-Christian” and “Moses” from standards that asked students to identify factors that influenced the founding of America, a move applauded by the Texas Freedom Network. The work groups said mentioning Judeo-Christian was redundant because many of the other influences were steeped in Judeo-Christian values.

Jonathan Saenz, head of Texas Values, a conservative public policy advocacy group, said Tuesday that “Judeo-Christian” needs to be restored. He also criticized the working groups’ recommendation to remove a curriculum standard that requires students to compare and contrast the concept of separation of church and state with the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom.

“There continue to be efforts to not only attack religious liberty and the beliefs of Christianity in our country but also having them taught,” Saenz said.