Last week, the Texas Board of Education voted to make a change to the state’s social studies standards that no serious historian would quibble with, but is, nevertheless, controversial in the Lone Star State: to teach that slavery was the central issue of the American Civil War, and not, as previous standards had dictated, a cause eclipsed by states’ rights and sectionalism. Camille Phillips at NPR reports the change is one of several to the curriculum that will be implemented in the 2019-2020 school year.
Standards previously adopted in 2010 were designed to play up the role of states’ rights and sectionalism and downplay slavery as the reason Texas entered the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy. Slavery, one board member said at the time, according to The Washington Post, was a “side issue.”
While the board’s Democrats, who first proposed the change in language in September, wanted to update standards to elucidate the central role that slavery played in the Civil War, the Republican-dominated board succeeded in keeping states’ rights issues and sectionalism on as “contributing factors” for the Civil War. The resulting compromise, according to the board, will teach "the central role of the expansion of slavery in causing sectionalism, disagreements over states' rights, and the Civil War."
Ron Francis, a high school history teacher in Highland Park, calls the compromise wanting. “The lies they’re telling are a little smaller than the lies they used to tell,” as he puts it to Kathyrn Lundstrom at The Texas Tribune.
During the meeting, Democratic board member Marisa Perez-Diaz explained the root of the frustration, saying, "What the use of 'states' rights' is doing is essentially blanketing, or skirting, the real foundational issue, which is slavery."
Republican board member David Bradley was one of the leading voices behind keeping states’ rights in the curriculum. "Each state had differences and made individual decisions as to whether or not to join into the conflict, correct? I mean, that's the definition of states' rights," he said in the meeting.
Since 1917, when state law authorized the board, which is often staffed by non-educators, to purchase all public school textbooks, it has maintained control of Texas' public school curriculum. Lundstrom of the Tribune reports the board’s standards have turned into a battleground for conservatives and liberals over what students should be taught.
Teachers will sometimes skirt these standards—for instance, one tells Lundstrom that she teaches the Reconstruction era, the period after the Civil War that set the stage for racial politics in the United States for the next century and a half, even though it is not mandated. However, the voluntary nature of such practice guarantees that not every student will be taught it. Meanwhile, the numerous topics that are included on standardized tests are not taught with the depth or nuance that they demand because teachers are forced to go through them in rapid fashion so as to cover all of the material needed to prepare their students to perform well on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR test.
In response to such criticism, the board is working to streamline the state's curriculum standards to give teachers a little more space to teach. However, some of what they’re editing out has also been criticized. For instance, as Lauren McGaughy at The Dallas Morning News reports, the new curriculum still lists only one cause for the extremely fraught Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it cuts out many historical figures, including Francis Scott Key, who wrote the Star-Spangled Banner, African-American poet Phillis Wheatley, as well as several Confederate leaders. Under pressure, the board voted to keep Helen Keller and Hillary Clinton on a list of notable Americans that could be included in lessons, though Oprah Winfrey, Barry Goldwater and astronaut Ellen Ochoa got the nix. The board also voted to keep in a specific description of the defenders of the Alamo as "heroic."
While some of the issues here are distinctly inter-Texan battles, over at The Houston Chronicle Joanna Perrillo explains that the curriculum decided by the school board also has national implications. After all, Texas represents one-tenth of grade school and high school students in the U.S., and the textbooks written to Texas standards go to other states as well.