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Texas public schools textbooks debate turns to evolution, climate change

By Melissa Greene mgreene@news-journal.com
Sept. 17, 2013 at 11 p.m.


The State Board of Education is once again sparking fierce debate following a Tuesday meeting on how the next generation of science textbooks will address evolution and climate change.

About 60 science experts, parents and activists testified during a packed public hearing before the board, which will vote in November on proposed textbooks and digital books in math, science and technology that could be used beginning next fall by most of the state's more than 5 million public school students.

"I think the mood is much more balanced and academic versus political. I am confident the SBOE will maintain our focus on an open, transparent and rigorous adoption process for instructional materials and ensure that science is taught in science class," said State Board of Education Vice Chairman Thomas Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, on Tuesday.

In the spotlight this time are seven proposed high school biology books that could be used in classrooms at least through 2022. Biology textbooks now used in local classrooms were adopted in 2004-05, administrators said.

A law passed by the Texas Legislature two years ago allows school districts to choose their own books and e-readers - but most have continued to use board-sanctioned books.

Publishers originally submitted 15 books for approval, but committees of volunteer reviewers, some nominated by current and former board of education members, said previously that eight didn't sufficiently cover the state-mandated curriculum.

White Oak ISD Superintendent Mike Gilbert said it is important to remember districts are held accountable to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills standards.

"It is not about the material in any certain resource, including textbooks. Our professional staff will draw from several resources to provide the best opportunity for the students to master the learning standard. The material will be covered in a manner that meets the standard and is aligned with the values of this community," Gilbert said.

One reviewer in Austin argued that creationism based on biblical texts should be taught in science classes, while others objected that climate change wasn't as settled a scientific matter as some of the proposed books say.

Publishers can edit their proposed books before November's vote, and board Chairwoman Barbara Cargill, a Republican from The Woodlands, asked Tuesday that they post their texts online so the public can read them.

Battles over how to teach evolution versus the idea that a higher power created the universe, as well as whether climate change is scientifically accepted, have been raging on the board of education for more than a decade. Previously, a bloc of board social conservatives insisted Texas students be taught "all sides" of matters such as evolution, and pressured textbook publishers to insert skepticism over global warming.

About 200 activists, many wearing green "Stand up For Science" T-shirts and hoisting signs with slogans such as "Your kids deserve the truth" and "Public schools, not Sunday schools," rallied before Tuesday's meeting.

"We have a great opportunity to restore the public's confidence in the SBOE and our ability to enhance and support public education." Ratliff said. "I think the headlines and public perception for many years led educators and the public to view the SBOE as a distraction or liability to public education. I think that has changed over the past couple of years, and we are still on an upward trajectory in that regard."

What the board will approve remains to be seen. Recent electoral defeats for social conservatives means the bloc no longer holds a majority among the board's 10 Republicans and five Democrats.

<em>- The Associated Press contributed to this report</em>

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