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Textbook Battles Heat Up as SBOE Approval Nears

Martin do Nascimento/Texas Tribune

A conservative grassroots group formed by a San Antonio man with ties to a national anti-Muslim organization has made a late entry into debate over new social studies textbooks for Texas schools, which are set to gain final approval from the state Board of Education this week. 

The Truth in Texas Textbooks Coalition, all but unheard from for months while new social studies textbooks and instructional materials were being vetted, submitted a 469-page report in late October identifying more than 1,500 “factual errors, omission of facts, half-truths and agenda biases” in proposed materials.

Among its objections: A passage on coal mining should say it has “minimal effect on the environment"; a chapter on Spanish colonization of Latin America should point out the “continuous discrimination and oppression practiced by the native American peoples on each other”; and a statement that Shariah law requires religious tolerance of non-Muslims should be removed.

The objections came just weeks before Tuesday's meeting, where the 15-member board is set to consider more than 100 products for eight different social studies courses — and a month after a key deadline for public comment. After public testimony, an initial vote on approving the textbooks and other instructional materials is expected. A final vote is set for Friday.

The group was formed by retired Lt. Col. Roy White, a Tea Party activist who also leads the Bexar County Chapter of ACT! for America, an organization dedicated to fighting extremist Islam. Its founder, Brigitte Gabriel, is known for her views that Muslims in the United States pose a danger to national security.

School districts are not required to buy materials approved by the state board, but many do. Whether or not the board listens to any of his objections, White said, his group intends to send a report card scoring each of the textbooks available for purchase to all 1,200 school districts in the state. The idea, he said, was for publishers to “feel it in the pocketbook.”

“It’s going to be very difficult for school board members to vote for a book and recommend a book that is rated as 'worst' by us,” he said. “Any of their opponents will have a field day with this next time they ran for office.”

September hearing allowed academics and groups from across the political spectrum to bring complaints about a long list of perceived flaws in the books, including inaccurate descriptions of world religions and out-of-date racial terminology. 

Witnesses testifying at that meeting, including White, were given a Sept. 30 deadline to submit their public comments so that publishers would have ample time to respond. Late-arriving comments prompted the Texas Education Agency to extend a Nov. 7 deadline it had set for publishers to issue their responses.

The last-minute submission from Truth in Texas Textbooks raised questions from at least one board member, Republican Thomas Ratliff of Mount Pleasant, who said he intends to ask the group why it waited so long to air its concerns.

“Are you really trying to improve the textbooks, or are you trying to stage an ambush?” he said. “They clearly were aware of our process and our meetings, and according to their own website they were created in 2013. So I don’t understand why they couldn’t honor our deadline.” 

Morgan Smith was an editorial intern and columnist at Slate in Washington, D.C., before moving to Austin to enter law school at the University of Texas in 2008. (She has put her degree on hold to join the Tribune's staff.) A native of San Antonio, she has a bachelor's degree in English from Wellesley College.