Revisionaries

How a group of Texas conservatives is rewriting your kids’ textbooks.

By Mariah Blake

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Photo: Jana Birchum

Don McLeroy is a balding, paunchy man with a thick broom-handle mustache who lives in a rambling two-story brick home in a suburb near Bryan, Texas. When he greeted me at the door one evening last October, he was clutching a thin paperback with the skeleton of a seahorse on its cover, a primer on natural selection penned by famed evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr. We sat down at his dining table, which was piled high with three-ring binders, and his wife, Nancy, brought us ice water in cut-crystal glasses with matching coasters. Then McLeroy cracked the book open. The margins were littered with stars, exclamation points, and hundreds of yellow Post-its that were brimming with notes scrawled in a microscopic hand. With childlike glee, McLeroy flipped through the pages and explained what he saw as the gaping holes in Darwin’s theory. “I don’t care what the educational political lobby and their allies on the left say,” he declared at one point. “Evolution is hooey.” This bled into a rant about American history. “The secular humanists may argue that we are a secular nation,” McLeroy said, jabbing his finger in the air for emphasis. “But we are a Christian nation founded on Christian principles. The way I evaluate history textbooks is first I see how they cover Christianity and Israel. Then I see how they treat Ronald Reagan—he needs to get credit for saving the world from communism and for the good economy over the last twenty years because he lowered taxes.”

Views like these are relatively common in East Texas, a region that prides itself on being the buckle of the Bible Belt. But McLeroy is no ordinary citizen. The jovial creationist sits on the Texas State Board of Education, where he is one of the leaders of an activist bloc that holds enormous sway over the body’s decisions. As the state goes through the once-in-a-decade process of rewriting the standards for its textbooks, the faction is using its clout to infuse them with ultraconservative ideals. Among other things, they aim to rehabilitate Joseph McCarthy, bring global-warming denial into science class, and downplay the contributions of the civil rights movement.

Battles over textbooks are nothing new, especially in Texas, where bitter skirmishes regularly erupt over everything from sex education to phonics and new math. But never before has the board’s right wing wielded so much power over the writing of the state’s standards. And when it comes to textbooks, what happens in Texas rarely stays in Texas. The reasons for this are economic: Texas is the nation’s second-largest textbook market and one of the few biggies where the state picks what books schools can buy rather than leaving it up to the whims of local districts, which means publishers that get their books approved can count on millions of dollars in sales. As a result, the Lone Star State has outsized influence over the reading material used in classrooms nationwide, since publishers craft their standard textbooks based on the specs of the biggest buyers. As one senior industry executive told me, “Publishers will do whatever it takes to get on the Texas list.”

Until recently, Texas’s influence was balanced to some degree by the more-liberal pull of California, the nation’s largest textbook market. But its economy is in such shambles that California has put off buying new books until at least 2014. This means that McLeroy and his ultraconservative crew have unparalleled power to shape the textbooks that children around the country read for years to come.


Up until the 1950s, textbooks painted American history as a steady string of triumphs, but the upheavals of the 1960s shook up old hierarchies, and beginning in the latter part of the decade, textbook publishers scrambled to rewrite their books to make more space for women and minorities. They also began delving more deeply into thorny issues, like slavery and American interventionism. As they did, a new image of America began to take shape that was not only more varied, but also far gloomier than the old one. Author Frances FitzGerald has called this chain of events “the most dramatic rewriting of history ever to take place.”

This shift spurred a fierce backlash from social conservatives, and some began hunting for ways to fight back. In the 1960s, Norma and Mel Gabler, a homemaker and an oil-company clerk, discovered that Texas had a little-known citizen-review process that allowed the public to weigh in on textbook content. From their kitchen table in the tiny town of Hawkins, the couple launched a crusade to purge textbooks of what they saw as a liberal, secular, pro-evolution bias. When textbook adoptions rolled around, the Gablers would descend on school board meetings with long lists of proposed changes—at one point their aggregate “scroll of shame” was fifty-four feet long. They also began stirring up other social conservatives, and eventually came to wield breathtaking influence. By the 1980s, the board was demanding that publishers make hundreds of the Gablers’ changes each cycle. These ranged from rewriting entire passages to simple fixes, such as pulling the New Deal from a timeline of significant historical events (the Gablers thought it smacked of socialism) and describing the Reagan administration’s 1983 military intervention in Grenada as a “rescue” rather than an “invasion.”

To avoid tangling with the Gablers and other citizen activists, many publishers started self-censoring or allowing the couple to weigh in on textbooks in advance. In 1984, the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way analyzed new biology textbooks presented for adoption in Texas and found that, even before the school board weighed in, three made no mention of evolution. At least two of them were later adopted in other states. This was not unusual: while publishers occasionally produced Texas editions, in most cases changes made to accommodate the state appeared in textbooks around the country—a fact that remains true to this day.

The Texas legislature finally intervened in 1995, after a particularly heated skirmish over health textbooks—among other things, the board demanded that publishers pull illustrations of techniques for breast self-examination and swap a photo of a briefcase-toting woman for one of a mother baking a cake. The adoption process was overhauled so that instead of being able to rewrite books willy-nilly, the school board worked with the Texas Education Agency, the state’s department of education, to develop a set of standards. Any book that conformed and got the facts right had to be accepted, which diluted the influence of citizen activists.

Around this time, social conservatives decided to target seats on the school board itself. In 1994 the Texas Republican Party, which had just been taken over by the religious right, enlisted Robert Offutt, a conservative board member who was instrumental in overhauling the health textbooks, to recruit like-minded candidates to run against the board’s moderate incumbents. At the same time, conservative donors began pouring tens of thousands of dollars into local school board races. Among them were Wal-Mart heir John Walton and James Leininger, a hospital-bed tycoon whose largess has been instrumental in allowing religious conservatives to take charge of the machinery of Texas politics. Conservative groups, like the Christian Coalition and the Eagle Forum, also jumped into the fray and began mobilizing voters.

Part of the newcomers’ strategy was bringing bare-knuckle politics into what had been low-key local races. In the run-up to the 1994 election, Leininger’s political action committee, Texans for Governmental Integrity, sent out glossy flyers suggesting that one Democratic incumbent—a retired Methodist schoolteacher and grandmother of five—was a pawn of the “radical homosexual lobby” who wanted to push steroids and alcohol on children and advocated in-class demonstrations on “how to masturbate and how to get an abortion!” The histrionics worked, and the group quickly picked off a handful of Democrats. The emboldened bloc then set its sights on Republicans who refused to vote in lockstep. “Either you’d hippity-hop, or they would throw whatever they could at you,” says Cynthia A. Thornton, a conservative Republican and former board member, who refers to the bloc as “the radicals.”

It took more than a decade of fits and starts, but the strategy eventually paid off. After the 2006 election, Republicans claimed ten of fifteen board seats. Seven were held by the ultra-conservatives, and one by a close ally, giving them an effective majority. Among the new cadre were some fiery ideologues; in her self-published book, Cynthia Dunbar of Richmond rails against public education, which she dubs “tyrannical” and a “tool of perversion,” and says sending kids to public school is like “throwing them into the enemy’s flames.” (More recently, she has accused Barack Obama of being a terrorist sympathizer and suggested he wants America to be attacked so he can declare martial law.) Then in 2007 Governor Rick Perry appointed Don McLeroy, a suburban dentist and longstanding bloc member, as board chairman. This passing of the gavel gave the faction unprecedented power just as the board was gearing up for the once-in-a-decade process of rewriting standards for every subject.


McLeroy has flexed his muscle particularly brazenly in the struggle over social studies standards. When the process began last January, the Texas Education Agency assembled a team to tackle each grade. In the case of eleventh-grade U.S. history, the group was made up of classroom teachers and history professors—that is, until McLeroy added a man named Bill Ames. Ames—a volunteer with the ultra- conservative Eagle Forum and Minuteman militia member who occasionally publishes angry screeds accusing “illegal immigrant aliens” of infesting America with diseases or blasting the “environmentalist agenda to destroy America”—pushed to infuse the standards with his right-wing views and even managed to add a line requiring books to give space to conservative icons, “such as Newt Gingrich, Phyllis Schlafly and the Moral Majority,” without any liberal counterweight. But for the most part, the teachers on the team refused to go along. So Ames put in a call to McLeroy, who demanded to see draft standards for every grade and then handed them over to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank founded by his benefactor, James Leininger. The group combed through the papers and compiled a list of seemingly damning omissions. Among other things, its analysts claimed that the writing teams had stripped out key historical figures like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Pat Hardy, a Republican board member who has sat in on some of the writing-team meetings, insists this isn’t true. “No one was trying to remove George Washington!” she says. “That group took very preliminary, unfinished documents and drew all kinds of wrongheaded conclusions.”

Nevertheless, the allegations drummed up public outrage, and in April the board voted to stop the writing teams’ work and bring in a panel of experts to guide the process going forward—“expert,” in this case, meaning any person on whom two board members could agree. In keeping with the makeup of the board, three of the six people appointed were right-wing ideologues, among them Peter Marshall, a Massachusetts-based preacher who has argued that California wildfires and Hurricane Katrina were God’s punishment for tolerating gays, and David Barton, former vice chairman of the Texas Republican Party. Both men are self-styled historians with no relevant academic training—Barton’s only credential is a bachelor’s degree in religious education from Oral Roberts University—who argue that the wall of separation between church and state is a myth.

When the duo testified before the board in September, Barton, a lanky man with a silver pompadour, brought along several glass display cases stuffed with rare documents that illustrate America’s Christian heritage, among them a battered leather Bible that was printed by the Congress of the Confederation in 1782, a scrap of yellowing paper with a biblical poem scrawled by John Quincy Adams, and a stack of rusty printing plates for McGuffey Readers, popular late-1800s school books with a strong Christian bent. When he took to the podium that afternoon, Barton flashed a PowerPoint slide showing thick metal chains. “I really like the analogy of a chain—that we have all these chains that run through American history,” he explained in his rapid-fire twang. But, he added, in the draft social studies standards, the governmental history chain was riddled with gaps. “We don’t mention 1638, the first written constitution in America … the predecessor to the U.S. Constitution,” he noted as a hot pink “1638” popped up on the screen. By this he meant the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, which called for a government based on the “Rule of the Word of God.” Barton proceeded to rattle off roughly a dozen other documents that pointed up the theocratic leaning of early American society, as the years appeared in orange or pink along the length of the chain.

Barton’s goal is to pack textbooks with early American documents that blend government and religion, and paint them as building blocks of our Constitution. In so doing, he aims to blur the fact that the Constitution itself cements a wall of separation between church and state. But his agenda does not stop there. He and the other conservative experts also want to scrub U.S. history of its inconvenient blemishes—if they get their way, textbooks will paint slavery as a relic of British colonialism that America struggled to cast off from day one and refer to our economic system as “ethical capitalism.” They also aim to redeem Communist hunter Joseph McCarthy, a project McLeroy endorses. As he put it in a memo to one of the writing teams, “Read the latest on McCarthy—He was basically vindicated.”

On the global front, Barton and company want textbooks to play up clashes with Islamic cultures, particularly where Muslims were the aggressors, and to paint them as part of an ongoing battle between the West and Muslim extremists. Barton argues, for instance, that the Barbary wars, a string of skirmishes over piracy that pitted America against Ottoman vassal states in the 1800s, were the “original war against Islamic Terrorism.” What’s more, the group aims to give history a pro-Republican slant—the most obvious example being their push to swap the term “democratic” for “republican” when describing our system of government. Barton, who was hired by the GOP to do outreach to black churches in the run-up to the 2004 election, has argued elsewhere that African Americans owe their civil rights almost entirely to Republicans and that, given the “atrocious” treatment blacks have gotten at the hands of Democrats, “it might be much more appropriate that … demands for reparations were made to the Democrat Party rather than to the federal government.” He is trying to shoehorn this view into textbooks, partly by shifting the focus of black history away from the civil rights era to the post-Reconstruction period, when blacks were friendlier with Republicans.

Barton and Peter Marshall initially tried to purge the standards of key figures of the civil rights era, such as César Chávez and Thurgood Marshall, though they were forced to back down amid a deafening public uproar. They have since resorted to a more subtle tack; while they concede that people like Martin Luther King Jr. deserve a place in history, they argue that they shouldn’t be given credit for advancing the rights of minorities. As Barton put it, “Only majorities can expand political rights in America’s constitutional society.” Ergo, any rights people of color have were handed to them by whites—in his view, mostly white Republican men.

While the writing teams have so far made only modest concessions to the ideologue experts, the board has final say over the documents’ contents, and the ultraconservative bloc has made it clear that it wants its experts’ views to get prominent play—a situation the real experts find deeply unsettling. While in Texas, I paid a visit to James Kracht, a soft-spoken professor with a halo of fine white hair, who is a dean at Texas A&M University’s school of education. Kracht oversaw the writing of Texas’s social studies standards in the 1990s and is among the experts tapped by the board’s moderates this time around. I asked him how he thought the process was going. “I have to be careful what I say,” he replied, looking vaguely sheepish. “But when the door is closed and I’m by myself, I yell and scream and pound on the wall.”


There has already been plenty of screaming and wall pounding in the battles over standards for other subjects. In late 2007, the English language arts writing teams, made up mostly of teachers and curriculum planners, turned in the drafts they had been laboring over for more than two years. The ultraconservatives argued that they were too light on basics like grammar and too heavy on reading comprehension and critical thinking. “This critical-thinking stuff is gobbledygook,” grumbled David Bradley, an insurance salesman with no college degree, who often acts as the faction’s enforcer. At the bloc’s urging, the board threw out the teams’ work and hired an outside consultant to craft new standards from scratch, but the faction still wasn’t satisfied; when the new drafts came in, one adherent dismissed them as “unreadable” and “mangled.” In the end, they took matters into their own hands. The night before the final vote in May 2008, two members of the bloc, Gail Lowe and Barbara Cargill, met secretly and cobbled together yet another version. The documents were then slipped under their allies’ hotel-room doors, and the bloc forced through a vote the following morning before the other board members even had a chance to read them. Bradley argued that the whole ordeal was necessary because the writing teams had clung to their own ideas rather than deferring to the board. “I don’t think this will happen again, because they got spanked,” he added.

A similar scenario played out during the battle over science standards, which reached a crescendo in early 2009. Despite the overwhelming consensus among scientists that climate change exists, the group rammed through a last-minute amendment requiring students to “analyze and evaluate different views on the existence of global warming.” This, in essence, mandates the teaching of climate-change denial. What’s more, they scrubbed the standards of any reference to the fact that the universe is roughly fourteen billion years old, because this timeline conflicts with biblical accounts of creation.

McLeroy and company had also hoped to require science textbooks to address the “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theories, including evolution. Scientists see the phrase, which was first slipped into Texas curriculum standards in the 1980s, as a back door for bringing creationism into science class. But as soon as news broke that the board was considering reviving it, letters began pouring in from scientists around the country, and science professors began turning out en masse to school board hearings. During public testimony, one biologist arrived at the podium in a Victorian-era gown, complete with a flouncy pink bustle, to remind her audience that in the 1800s religious fundamentalists rejected the germ theory of disease; it has since gained near-universal acceptance. All this fuss made the bloc’s allies skittish, and when the matter finally went to the floor last March, it failed by a single vote.

But the struggle did not end there. McLeroy piped up and chided his fellow board members, saying, “Somebody’s gotta stand up to [these] experts!” He and his allies then turned around and put forward a string of amendments that had much the same effect as the “strengths and weaknesses” language. Among other things, they require students to evaluate various explanations for gaps in the fossil record and weigh whether natural selection alone can account for the complexity of cells. This mirrors the core arguments of the intelligent design movement: that life is too complex to be the result of unguided evolution, and that the fossil evidence for evolution between species is flimsy. The amendments passed by a wide margin, something McLeroy counts as a coup. “Whoo-eey!” he told me. “We won the Grand Slam, and the Super Bowl, and the World Cup! Our science standards are light years ahead of any other state when it comes to challenging evolution!” Scientists are not so enthusiastic. My last night in Texas, I met David Hillis, a MacArthur Award–winning evolutionary biologist who advised the board on the science standards, at a soul-food restaurant in Austin. “Clearly, some board members just wanted something they could point to so they could reject science books that don’t give a nod to creationism,” he said, stabbing his okra with a fork. “If they are able to use those standards to reject science textbooks, they have won and science has lost.”


Even in deeply conservative Texas, the bloc’s breathtaking hubris—coupled with allegations of vote swapping (see “Money and Power on the Texas State Board of Education”)—have spurred a backlash. In May, the Texas state legislature refused to confirm McLeroy as board chair (Governor Perry replaced him with another bloc member), and, for the first time since he took office in 1998, he is facing a primary fight. His challenger, Thomas Ratliff, a lobbyist and legislative consultant whose father was the state’s lieutenant governor, argues that under McLeroy’s leadership the board has become a “liability” to the Republican Party. Two other members of the ultraconservative bloc are also mired in heated primary battles.

But to date few bloc members have been ousted in primaries, and even if moderates manage to peel off a few seats, by that time it will probably be too late. In mid-January, the board will meet to hammer out the last details of the standards for social studies, the only remaining subject, and the final vote will be held in March, around the same time the first primary ballots are counted. This means that no matter what happens at the ballot box, the next generation of textbooks will likely bear the fingerprints of the board’s ultraconservatives—which is just fine with McLeroy. “Remember Superman?” he asked me, as we sat sipping ice water in his dining room. “The never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way? Well, that fight is still going on. There are people out there who want to replace truth with political correctness. Instead of the American way they want multiculturalism. We plan to fight back—and, when it comes to textbooks, we have the power to do it. Sometimes it boggles my mind the kind of power we have.”


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Mariah Blake is an editor of the Washington Monthly.  
 
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