UPDATED: Friday, April 13, 2012 - 9:53am
AUSTIN, Texas — Texas' state education board, rocked by primary elections that may push the influential panel's far-right leanings toward the center, is set to take its first vote on a new social studies curriculum that could reverberate in classrooms nationwide.
The board — long led by social conservatives who have advocated for ideas such as teaching Texas children more about the weaknesses of evolutionary theory — has worked on, and squabbled about, the social studies standards for months. The board's ultimate decisions affect the textbook content around the country because Texas is one of publishers' biggest clients.
A three-day meeting beginning Wednesday is the first since voters in last week's Republican primary handed defeats to two veteran conservatives, including former board chairman Don McLeroy, who lost to a moderate GOP lobbyist. Two other conservatives — a Republican and a Democrat— did not seek re-election. All four terms end in January.
McLeroy, a 10-year board veteran, has been one of the most prolific and polarizing members. The devout Christian conservative has been adamant on several issues, including that the Christian influences of the nation's Founding Fathers are important to studying American history.
"I think there'll be lots of amendments ... a lot of media attention, and it's important," McLeroy said of the meeting, adding that his lame-duck status won't affect his approach. "Our country is divided on how we see things and these things really come into sharp focus, especially with history and how you present it to your children."
The 15-member board is expected this week to finish debating social studies, history and economics curriculum before taking a preliminary vote. The final vote is expected in May. Aside from the Founding Fathers' beliefs, debate could flare over issues such as border security and how much children will study the impact of government regulation on the free enterprise system.
Amendments were debated late into the night during the board's last meeting, in January, when members smoothed over early clashes about how much prominence to give civil rights leader Cesar Chavez and whether Christmas should be in the curriculum.
In Texas alone, the board's decisions will set guideposts for teaching history and social studies to some 4.8 million K-12 students during the next 10 years. The last public meeting drew a long line of personal pleas, including Hispanic activists who asked that more Latinos be in the standards and conservatives who complained of too much emphasis was being given to historic figures' race and ethnicity. Several people asked that Sikhism be given more attention.
A group of University of Texas students plan a protest march before the meeting Wednesday to ask "the far-right, conservative faction of the state board to not inject their political agenda into the social studies and history curriculum," said Garrett Mize, a senior government major.
"There seems to be a misinformed view of religion in American history, that America is somehow founded on Christianity," Mize said. "We just ask that things be historically accurate."