Texas school politics might reach Vermont
By DANIEL BARLOW VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | May 26,2010
MONTPELIER – An attempt in Texas to give textbooks a conservative slant will have little or no effect on curriculum taught in Vermont schools, Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca said Tuesday.
Vilaseca condemned the recent actions taken by the Texas Board of Education to issue new textbook guidelines that present conservative political philosophies in a stronger light, including stressing that the Founding Fathers were guided by Christian principles.
"I am very concerned by any attempt by state school boards to rewrite history to fit a particular ideological view," Vilaseca said. "What has happened in Texas is very disconcerting."
The Texas Board of Education voted 10 to 5 earlier this year to issue new guidelines for textbooks used in their public schools. These new rules include requiring that history books teach about the "conservative resurgence" of the 1980s and downplaying the role of Thomas Jefferson, who coined the term "separation of church and state."
These changes worry historians and teachers because the standards set by Texas – one of the country's largest textbook purchasers – influence new textbooks issued by publishers who do not want to publish multiple versions. To put it simply, a textbook using these Texas-approved guidelines could get used in classrooms in Vermont.
Allen Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and a member of the U-32 High School Board in East Montpelier.
He also used to write textbooks for a living and says that the decisions made in California and Texas – the states with the two largest student populations – could affect what Vermont students are taught.
"This is an important issue not just in Texas, but right here in Vermont," Gilbert said.
Vilaseca said it is a possibility that some of these textbooks could be used in Vermont schools, but said that the national media attention on the Texas debate should make most school officials more aware of what they are buying to teach local children.
Unlike in Texas, textbooks in Vermont are selected by local school boards, he explained.
"We're a local control state," Vilaseca said. "What is taught in school districts in Montpelier might not be taught in a school district in Burlington."
Political battles over textbooks are nothing new. Some southern states have fought to include the teaching of creationism – the belief that an omnipresent being creating the world – alongside the scientific theory of evolution.
And before this latest battle in Texas, educators there banned books deemed "anti-Christian" or "anti-American" from being used in classrooms in 2002. These books included one that stated that global warming was changing the world's climate.
Gilbert said the door swings both ways, too. Textbooks in California, for example, sometimes reflect progressive politics.
"A textbook from California might talk about non-meat items in food chapters to reflect a vegetarian lifestyle," he said.
Vilaseca said it is dangerous for school boards to meddle too much in the writing of textbooks. These board members might serve only for a few years, but because the lifespan of public school textbooks are so long – it's not rare for a copy of a book to cost $200 – the long-term effect is there even after they leave.
"The textbooks don't go away," he said. "Teachers are the ones who should be addressing these issues."
This whole debate could soon be moot, however. As the publishing industry embraces electronic texts and more schools supply students with computers, Vilaseca said the whole landscape will change.
Several Vermont school districts are already giving e-books out to their students, he said, a move that, in the long term, could be cheaper than buying new textbooks.
"We could soon be in a situation where we can download a whole book, or even just a chapter that we need, in seconds," Vilaseca said. "The costs won't be as high and we'll have a diverse selection of texts to choose from."
Gilbert agreed, saying that the e-book revolution is the "wild card" in the debate. But he said school boards need to be vigilant about what books are used and which ones are rejected.
"There is an opportunity here for individualized learning," he said.