Candidate says education board is overstepping its authority over state’s textbooks

AUSTIN – An effort by some State Board of Education members to specify how Christianity and Islam should be covered in new world history books is illegal and should be dropped, a candidate who is expected to be an incoming board member and who has clashed with social conservatives said Wednesday.

Thomas Ratliff, a Republican from Mount Pleasant who defeated former board Chairman Don McLeroy of College Station in a hotly contested primary in March, said the board resolution is in direct conflict with a 1995 state law that limits the board’s authority over textbooks.

The resolution, scheduled to be considered next week, was prompted by what social conservatives said was a pro-Islamic, anti-Christian viewpoint in world history textbooks once used in Texas and an increasing presence in the U.S. textbook market by foreigners. Those critics did not cite similar biases in books now used in Texas schools.

“The problem with the resolution is that it is not legal,” said Ratliff, referring to a law passed by his father, former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, 15 years ago. “Under the law, the State Board of Education cannot legally say what should and should not be included in textbooks.”

The board can only consider whether textbooks cover the state’s curriculum standards, are factually correct and meet certain physical specifications, he said.

“This whole exercise is designed to score political points. It is not about quality education,” said Ratliff, who has a Libertarian opponent this fall but is expected to easily win the board seat.

A preliminary draft of the proposal states that “diverse reviewers have repeatedly documented gross pro-Islamic, anti-Christian distortions in social studies texts” across the U.S. and that past social studies textbooks in Texas also have been “tainted” with pro-Islamic, anti-Christian views. It contains a warning to publishers that the board will reject books that offer unequal coverage of religions.

McLeroy, a member of the social conservative bloc, said the panel has a legal right to state its position on proposed textbooks in a resolution.

“We absolutely have the right to do this,” he said, noting the proposal is a simple board resolution and not a formal rule.

McLeroy said that when the current world history books were adopted in 2003, he found instances of bias in one book that devoted far more attention to Islam than to Christianity. He held discussions with the publisher, who agreed to make the text more balanced.

“The books are still biased, but they were improved over what the publishers originally submitted,” he said. “There is reason to be concerned about bias in our history books. That is what motivated supporters of the resolution.”

A spokesman for textbook publishers said the resolution is “puzzling” because none of the world history books now in use in Texas reflect the pro-Islamic, anti-Christian bias that critics are talking about.

“Obviously these [older] books are not currently in use and haven’t been for a while. In terms of the current books, they were modified to address concerns about balance” in coverage of religions, said Jay Diskey of the Association of American Publishers.

All publishers use expert panels to review books for bias before they are submitted to a state, he said.

“There is no point creating products that the market does not want,” Diskey said.

Mary Helen Berlanga, D-Corpus Christi, said she has seen no evidence of bias in the current world history books – and she questioned the timing, given that books aren’t being approved this year.

“We need to be focusing on real issues like how to graduate more of our students,” she said.