Agosto on Fire at SBOE meeting

We hope someone lined up a Levatol I.V. for State Board of Education member Rick Agosto when he finally returned to San Antonio from this week's epic meetings on the social studies standards for Texas public schools.

Despite Agosto's rapidly rising condemnations (and pulse), on Friday evening, the SBOE passed the document that earned Agosto's board the ridicule of the nation and the scorn of several education experts. The final Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills standards contained more than 400 amendments from the original document crafted by educator work groups last summer and fall. Previously decried by teachers as "bloated" and a "laundry list," more than 100 of those amendments were added just on Thursday.

Agosto, who is not seeking reelection to his seat in November, explosively turned himself into the loudest opposition of additional amendments. Thursday evening, after a failed vote to re-instate labor leader Dolores Huerta into third-grade citizenship, several other new names were suggested.

"I'm very uncomfortable with us just grabbing names and putting them in on a personal basis. We have experts giving us these names, with information and explanations," Agosto said. Later in the evening he told the Board to stick Jefferson Davis's inaugural address, which board member Don McLeroy proposed be studied alongside Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, "where the sun doesn't shine.

"The intent of the experts was to analyze Abraham Lincoln, not compare him to Jefferson Davis. We're changing this TEK, we're adding Jefferson Davis, because we like him?" asked Agosto incredulously.

If the length of the social-studies TEKS were the only concern, it's likely the front few rows and the media box wouldn't have been packed to the gills. But the excessive amendments began when conservative ex-SBOE chairman DonMcLeroy (who still serves, though not as chair) began trying to correct a perceived liberal bias in the text books. That lead to other staunchly conservative members Terri Leo, Cynthia Dunbar, Barbara Cargill , David Bradley and Ken Mercer (who represents parts of San Antonio and the Hill Country) issuing their own amendments to alter language, insert key people and remove others from the social-studies standards used to create textbooks and state standardized tests for the next decade.

Moderate members Patricia Hardy, Geraldine Miller, and Bob Craig and more liberal members Agosto, Mary Helen Berlanga , Lawrence Allen, and Mavis Knight then began issuing amendments to amendments to try to insert their own views or reconfigure the new TEK to resemble what it once was under the work group TEKS . A somewhat taciturn Ken Mercer explained near the end of Friday's meeting that work groups originally had recommended the removal of Veterans Day, Christmas, and the Liberty Bell from their draft of TEKS , which apparently sparked his and other's proactive approach. That was in the same speech where he compared all members of the media to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, for creating "the big lie" that the Board wished to erase Thomas Jefferson from social-studies standards, and "repeating and repeating and repeating it."

Mercer's reference stems from one particular TEK in which Jefferson's name was removed from a list of Enlightenment thinkers. Though Jefferson appeared in grades 5, 8, and U.S. Government, the perception was that his removal from Enlightenment thinkers list was tantamount to removing him altogether. In an attempt to reintroduce Jefferson to that particular list, Bob Craig issued an amendment Friday afternoon and unintentionally touched off Agosto's biggest meltdown.

"That Thomas Jefferson discussion is the perfect example of what's wrong with this board," Agosto said when we caught up with him during a brief break. As has become standard on this Board, Craig introduced a new amendment handwritten on notebook paper that would reinsert the word "enlightenment" and Thomas Jefferson into a standard that read (after the infamous change during the last board meeting), "explain the impact of the writings of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and William Blackstone." McLeroy pointed out that several of those names (added last session after the removal of Thomas Jefferson) were not Enlightenment thinkers. Dunbar pointed out that neither was Blackstone, and spoke passionately about keeping Calvin in as he was a philosophical founder of America in her opinion.

Mercer made an attempt to include James Madison in the new list as well for his work on the Federalist Papers. Craig motioned that perhaps Aquinas and Calvin could be included in another section somewhere else, which failed. A motion to strike the newly inserted Madison from the language carried. Allen pointed out that currently the amended standard now was too vague. "You have to have an objective in the standards. It has to have a verb that goes somewhere. What writing, his writing to his mama?" Allen asked. Craig amended his language to include "explain political philosophies such as," to try to address Allen's concerns.

"First we took out 'Enlightenment' and Jefferson," ranted Agosto outside the meeting room, "then we added language so we could put in John Calvin. Now Thomas Jefferson doesn't fit so we have to change the meaning again. What is going on here?"

At the end of the day Friday, after hearing testimony until midnight on Wednesday from more than 160 people, most of whom opposed the TEKS as amended by the board, after arguing until after midnight Thursday on the finer points of Barack Obama vs. Barack Hussein Obama in the textbooks as the nation's first black president, and what role slavery played in the Civil War, on Friday the board passed, in parcels, social-studies standards containing many of the most conservative TEKS (learning in detail about the conservative resurgence in the '80s and '90s in high school U.S. history, various examples extolling the virtues of free-markets compared to communism or command economies) but containing some wins for those concerned about religious freedom and minority representation (language was reinserted regarding the importance of the separation of church and state, including Hector P. Garcia as a civil-rights leader), though in a smaller proportion. The votes went down on party lines, 9-5, with Miller absent and Craig siding with Democrats. But not before Agosto made his grandest gesture yet. "I don't know what this thing is!" he shouted, waving the latest TEKS document around. Hoisting his wastebasket onto his desk, he dropped the document in. "This thing belongs in the trash!"

Now, the state, and possibly the nation, wait until the new board, minus a few of its most conservative members, meets and the legislature reconvenes in January, to decide if they share Agosto's opinion, too.

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