Ed board wants book power back

Ed board wants book power back
Exclusive: AG asked to dump limits on panel's control of texts' content

By TERRENCE STUTZ / The Dallas Morning News, Jan 31, 2006
AUSTIN – At the behest of social conservatives seeking influence over textbooks used in public schools, State Board of Education members have asked the attorney general to strike down restrictions on their powers to review and reject the books' contents.

The move was initiated by Republican Terri Leo of Spring, one of five board members aligned with social conservatives and a major critic of the 1996 legal opinion that has thwarted board efforts to exert more control over textbook content.

Ms. Leo requested the opinion with the approval of board chairwoman Geraldine Miller. The requested opinion from Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott will be closely scrutinized because of Texas' influence. Many books are tailored to the state's wishes and then typically marketed in other states. And battles over content could touch on the teaching of evolution, what students are told about birth control and sexual abstinence, and interpretations of history.

A recent letter from Ms. Leo formally asking the attorney general to revisit the issue argued that the original opinion from former Attorney General Dan Morales was "erroneous on its face" and should be reversed, restoring full board authority over textbook selection.

"We suggest that the opinion misread the Texas Education Code and misinterpreted legislative intent; that State Board of Education establishment of general textbook content standards is lawful under current statute and serves a legitimate state interest," she said in her request for a new opinion.

Mr. Abbott's office typically does not comment on requests for opinions. He is considered more conservative than his predecessor Mr. Morales, a Democrat.

Her letter did not mention that the Legislature has repeatedly rejected bills over the past decade that would have done what she is now requesting – giving the board of education the right to screen content and reject books board members believe are not appropriate for students.

At least three such bills were filed in the 2005 legislative session. None came close to passage.

Former state Sen. Bill Ratliff, who wrote the 1995 law that stripped the state board of many of its powers and turned them over to local school boards, said he was "very clear" about his intention to include authority for textbook selection.

Mr. Ratliff, who later served as lieutenant governor, said Monday that the opinion was a correct interpretation of his legislation.

"Nothing has changed," he said. "I am still sure that was the intent of the legislation."

Ms. Leo requested the opinion with the approval of board chairwoman Geraldine Miller. Although Republican members aligned with social conservatives have been the most vocal critics of Mr. Morales' opinion, other board members – including some Democrats –have supported a restoration of the panel's textbook review authority.

After the law was passed, upset board members asked for an opinion from Mr. Morales, who upheld the restrictions. Board members were required to approve every textbook that was free of errors and contained at least half of the essential knowledge and skills in its subject, the attorney general said, citing the 1995 law.

Also voicing support for the Morales opinion at the time was Gov. George W. Bush's press secretary, Karen Hughes, and another GOP leader in the Legislature, Teel Bivins of Amarillo, then chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

Dan Quinn of the Texas Freedom Network, a nonprofit organization that often spars with social conservative groups over religion in the schools, said that when Mr. Ratliff wrote the law, textbook selection had become bogged down over social conservatives' demands for changes on evolution, sex education and other sensitive topics.

"Every year, some board members demonstrate that given the opportunity, they would edit and change textbooks based not on the facts, but on their personal beliefs," he said. "This is a road you don't want to do down if you want a good education system. The Legislature knew that, and that is why they passed the 1995 law. And it's why they have refused to change the law since then."

Mr. Quinn said the board is now "trying to do an end run" around the Legislature.

"We would be left with textbooks that reflect the personal and political beliefs of board members if the attorney general rules in their favor," he added.

An attorney general's opinion is a written interpretation of a law. It carries the weight and force of law unless modified or overturned by a judge, the Legislature or a subsequent attorney general's opinion.

Americans for Prosperity, a group that promotes conservative causes, argued that a new attorney general's opinion affirming the board's authority over textbook selection is long overdue.

"We feel strongly they do have the authority and responsibility to review textbooks," said Peggy Venable, the group's director. "Textbooks are purchased with money out of the state's Permanent School Fund, and the state board has a constitutional responsibility to oversee how those funds are spent."

Ms. Venable said it is important that decisions on something as important as textbooks be made by elected officials rather than by government bureaucrats.

"These elected officials represent all the taxpayers in the state and have a responsibility to make sure textbooks used in our schools are accurate and conform" with the curriculum, she said.

E-mail tstutz@dallasnews.com