AUSTIN, Texas – Parents, teachers and activists began sounding off Wednesday on how history — topics from the fall of the Roman Empire to Texas cosmetics queen Mary Kay Ash — will be taught to millions of Texas children for the next decade.
The State Board of Education started hearing testimony, before a tentative vote this week on new social studies curriculum standards that will serve as the framework in Texas classrooms. But, as usual in votes before the conservative-led board, the wide-reaching guidelines are full of potential ideological flashpoints.
Early quibbles over how much prominence to give civil rights leaders such as Thurgood Marshall, and the inclusion of Christmas seem to have been smoothed over in the draft now being considered. Board Chairman Gail Lowe said Wednesday that Christmas and activist Cesar Chavez will not be removed from the standards.
But board members are crafting dozens of amendments to be raised for consideration before the tentative vote, expected Thursday. The 15-member board won't adopt final standards until March.
The curriculum it chooses will be the guideposts for teaching history and social studies to some 4.8 million K-12 students for 10 years. The standards will be used to develop state tests and by textbook publishers who develop material for the nation based on Texas, one of the largest markets.
Much of the conversation ahead of the hearing has turned to how much emphasis will be given to the religious beliefs of the nation's founding fathers, with some activists lobbying to promote and highlight their Christianity. Others who promote the separation of church and state are prepared for battle.
"Some board members and the non-expert ideologues they appointed to a review panel have made it clear that they want students to learn that the founding fathers intended America to be an explicitly Christian nation with laws based on their own narrow interpretations of the Bible," said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, which opposes initiatives pushed by Christian conservatives.
Former board chairman Don McLeroy, a Republican from College Station, says the conservative efforts have been misconstrued.
"I don't see anyone wanting to say that this is a Christian nation or anything like that," McLeroy said. "The argument is that the principles on which (the nation) has been founded are biblically based."
Historians also have signed up to testify and will be monitoring the amendments.
"An education without some understanding of the profound role of religion in our nation's history and its contributions to our nation's success is an incomplete education and our courts have often said as much," said Derek Davis, director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.
"What violates the Constitution is presenting material that either prefers Christianity over other faiths or depicts the United States as a Christian nation in some legal or constitutional sense."
Doing so would infringe on the religious liberties of students across Texas, said Davis, who is also dean of the College of Humanities at the school.
More than 130 people had signed up to testify Wednesday, including Hispanic leaders, who want the standards to include more examples of prominent Mexican Americans.
"This is the first time the State Board of Education is going to get to vote on this, so you can't take anything for granted," said Jonathan Saenz, a lobbyist for the conservative Free Market Foundation. "I think it would be a tragedy if students talk about Martin Luther King Jr., while not being able to talk about the fact that he had a strong Christian faith. I'm hoping that's not the direction we're headed."
He'll also ask the board to reconsider mentioning makeup entrepreneur Mary Kay Ash, of Addison, Texas, more often than Christopher Columbus in the curriculum standard. At present Ash is mentioned twice; Columbus once.