Conservatives say Texas social studies classes give too much credit to civil rights leaders
12:00 AM CDT on Thursday, July 9, 2009
By TERRENCE STUTZ / The Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN – Civil rights leaders César Chávez and Thurgood Marshall – whose names appear on schools, libraries, streets and parks across the U.S. – are given too much attention in Texas social studies classes, conservatives advising the state on curriculum standards say.
"To have César Chávez listed next to Ben Franklin" – as in the current standards – "is ludicrous," wrote evangelical minister Peter Marshall, one of six experts advising the state as it develops new curriculum standards for social studies classes and textbooks. David Barton, president of Aledo-based WallBuilders, said in his review that Chávez, a Hispanic labor leader, "lacks the stature, impact and overall contributions of so many others."
Marshall also questioned whether Thurgood Marshall, who argued the landmark case that resulted in school desegregation and was the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice, should be presented to Texas students as an important historical figure. He wrote that the late justice is "not a strong enough example" of such a figure.
The recommendations are part of a long process as the State Board of Education prepares to write new social studies curriculum standards for public schools. Debate on the issue, which will also include questions of the role of religion in public life, could be as intense as that on new science standards that were adopted by the board in March, when evolution was a major flashpoint.
The social studies requirements will remain in place for the next decade, dictating what is taught in government, history and other social studies classes in all elementary and secondary schools. The standards also will be used to write textbooks and develop state tests for students.
Although the actual standards are being drafted by teams of teachers, academics and community representatives, the education board appointed a panel of six experts to help guide the writing teams. Three of the experts, including Barton and Marshall, were appointed by Republican social conservatives on the board, while the other three experts – all professors at state universities in Texas – were appointed by the remaining Republicans and Democrats on the 15-member board.
Texas Freedom Network, a nonprofit group that has battled social conservatives on education issues, questioned the academic credentials of Barton and Marshall, and said their negative comments on Chávez are just the start of a "blacklist" of historical figures considered objectionable by social conservatives.
"It is what we expected from unqualified political activists put on this so-called panel of experts," said Dan Quinn of the freedom network. "This is yet another step toward politicizing our children's education."
State board member Don McLeroy, R-College Station, took issue with the criticism of Barton and Marshall, saying they are "very qualified" to consider social studies standards.
"There is no doubt they have the experience and expertise to advise the writing teams and the board on the standards," he said, noting he has not yet read the experts' recommendations.
All six submitted reports to the board this month, critiquing the current social studies standards – adopted in 1998 – and offering suggestions for the curriculum.
Jesus Francisco de la Teja, chairman of the history department at Texas State University and former state historian who was also a curriculum reviewer, said while he had not read the reports from Barton and Marshall, he had a far different view of Chávez.
"I don't share their opinion at all," said de la Teja. "Unlike them, I did include César Chávez in my recommendations as someone who was worthy of attention and discussion" in social studies classes.
"Whether you approve or disapprove of what he did, there is no doubt about his contribution to bettering the lives of an untold number of Americans of limited economic means and education," de la Teja said.
The third expert appointed by social conservatives was Daniel Dreisbach, a professor in the public affairs school at American University in Washington, D.C. He was more moderate in his recommendations, but he agreed with Barton and Marshall that the Founding Fathers wanted a distinctly Christian nation based on biblical principles.
In his report, Marshall, president of Peter Marshall Ministries in Massachusetts, contended that students in government classes must focus on the historic Roe vs. Wade decision on abortion rights, "which has arguably more impacted American life than any other Supreme Court decision in the 20th century." Marshall strongly opposes the ruling.
Barton, a former vice chairman of the Texas Republican Party, said that because the U.S. is a republic rather than a democracy, the proper adjective for identifying U.S. values and processes should be "republican" rather than "democratic." That means social studies books should discuss "republican" values in the U.S., his report said.
Both Barton and Marshall also singled out as overrated Anne Hutchinson, a New England pioneer and early advocate of women's rights and religious freedom, who was tried and banished from her Puritan colony in Massachusetts because of her nontraditional views.
"She was certainly not a significant colonial leader, and didn't accomplish anything except getting herself exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for making trouble," Marshall wrote.
"Anne Hutchinson does not belong in the company of these eminent gentlemen," he said, referring to colonial leaders William Penn, Roger Williams and others. Williams later invited Hutchinson to help establish a colony in what became Rhode Island.