This Year’s Most Important Education Election

Written by: Jason Burns

Primary Source: Green & Write, March 21, 2016

As election season moves into full swing, education is attracting more attention (see here, here, and here). Topics include the fate of the Common Core State Standards, student testing, and what role the federal government should play in education policy generally (see here). Though education has become a more popular topic in the presidential race, the most consequential election when it comes to education is one in which the vast majority of Americans are unable to cast a ballot: the race for the Texas State Board of Education.

Texas’ National Role in Education

The combination of two factors makes the Texas State Board of Education (TXSBOE) important in education policy nationwide: its size and a statewide adoption process.

With over 5 million students, Texas is the second-largest market for educational materials in the country. Additionally, Texas has a statewide adoption process for educational materials such as textbooks. This presents a huge opportunity to vendors of educational materials who have the potential to make enormous sales if their textbooks or other materials are approved by TXSBOE. At the same time, the ability to selectively adopt textbooks gives the TXSBOE significant influence over the content of those materials as publishers have been willing to cater their materials to Texas’ standards. And because the majority of states do not have statewide adoption, publishers tend to offer their Texas-oriented materials across the country rather than developing multiple versions of the same textbook. Ergo, the decisions made by the TXSBOE shape what students from Maine to Washington are exposed to in their classrooms.

Messing in Texas

Because of the enormous influence of the TXSBOE, it has become a battleground for what children are taught and decisions over educational materials by the TXSBOE has sparked controversy on numerous occasions. In 2013, the approval of biology textbooks was delayed because a reviewer appointed by the TXSBOE (who has been recognized by the Creation Science Hall of Fame) believed that it contained an error by presenting evolution as a scientific consensus.

Texas was again in the spotlight the following year, this time over changes to social studies textbooks.  Issues included the role of Moses and biblical law in shaping America’s founding, whether there is indeed a separation of church and state in the US government, and the existence of global climate change. The curriculum on which these textbooks are based is so politically motivated that a review by the Fordham Institute found that:

“Complex historical issues are obscured with blatant politicizing throughout the document. Biblical influences on America’s founding are exaggerated, if not invented. The complicated but undeniable history of separation between church and state is flatly dismissed. From the earliest grades, students are pressed to uncritically celebrate the “free enterprise system and its benefits.” “Minimal government intrusion” is hailed as key to the early nineteenth-century commercial boom—ignoring the critical role of the state and federal governments in internal improvements and economic expansion. Native peoples are missing until brief references to nineteenth-century events. Slavery, too, is largely missing. Sectionalism and states’ rights are listed before slavery as causes of the Civil War, while the issue of slavery in the territories—the actual trigger for the sectional crisis—is never mentioned at all. During and after Reconstruction, there is no mention of the Black Codes, the Ku Klux Klan, or sharecropping; the term “Jim Crow” never appears. Incredibly, racial segregation is only mentioned in a passing reference to the 1948 integration of the armed forces.”

Just last year, Texas textbooks received national attention when a series of viral social media posts from a concerned mother drew attention to how the slave trade was presented in world history. In a section on migration, Africans brought to the US were referred to as “workers” rather than slaves. Though the publisher did revise the book, critics of the TXSBOE claimed that it was “no accident that this happened in Texas.”

The Most Important Election

Members of the Texas State Board of Education serve for 4 years and in 2016, 8 of the board’s 15 seats are up for grabs. During the next term, it is expected that TXSBOE will oversee the adoption of new curriculum and materials for English Language Arts and Reading from K-12, pre-Kindergarten, health education, and physical education. Ergo, the stakes of this election are high and the way that the race these seats is shaping up suggests that these adoptions are likely to draw controversy. For example, Mary Lou Bruner, the frontrunner in Texas’ 9th district, has claimed (and defended) during her campaign that President Obama was a gay prostitute, Islam should be banned, the Democrats had JFK assassinated, the United Nations has a plot to depopulate the world, and that teaching evolution has caused school shootings (see here, here, here, here, here, and here). This is troubling given that whoever wins the TXSBOE seats will have a significant impact on what students will learn in many other parts of the country.

The upcoming elections for the Texas State Board of Education have national implications and therefore should be of concern to educators, parents, policymakers, and citizens. Most educational decisions are made by local school boards, but the reality of the market for educational materials suggests that some important decisions (like the content of instructional materials) are shaped by forces outside of the local school district’s control. In light of this, educators, administrators, and local officials should carefully examine the content of what they choose to adopt for their students lest these decisions be effectively outsourced to entities like the TXSBOE.

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Jason Burns
Jason Burns is a second-year doctoral student in Educational Policy. His research interests include the application of theories from economics, behavioral economics, and psychology to understand how teachers, students, and administrators use information to make decisions. Before coming to MSU, Jason taught high school social studies, wrote curriculum, and developed assessments for Howard County Public Schools in suburban Maryland. Jason holds a bachelor’s degree from Kent State University and a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins University.