Environmental textbooks censored

Once again, the State Board of Education puts values before curriculum

The great Texas textbook debacle continues: Last month high school students and textbook author Daniel Chiras took the State Board of Education to the federal district court in Dallas for rejecting the Chiras' environmental science textbook on the basis of values rather than curriculum.

Citing a Supreme Court decision, the court dismissed the case, upholding that school boards may indulge "viewpoint discrimination" when it is "reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns." Trial Lawyers for Public Justice will file an appeal with the 5th Circuit in January.

The Texas Commissioner of Education approved Chiras' Environmental Science: Creating a Sustainable Future after the publisher agreed to make factual changes recommended by a panel of educators at Texas A&M University. But, at the last minute, the SBOE voted to reject the book on the advice of two private interest groups, the Texas Public Policy Foundation and Citizens for a Sound Economy. According to an amicus brief filed by the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the National Coalition Against Censorship, and the Freedom to Read Foundation on behalf of the plaintiffs, TPPF and CSE objected to what they called "anti-Christian" and "anti-free enterprise" sentiments and "vitriol against Western civilizations and its primary belief systems."

At press time, Geraldine Miller, the SBOE chairman named in the suit, had not returned calls from the Current. Two of the board's five Democrats spoke with the Current, but neither seemed to know much about the lawsuit. Helen Berlanga of Corpus Christi remembered supporting the book, but could not recall why it was rejected. Joe Bernal of San Antonio was fuzzy as to who had taken exception to the textbook - the textbook committee or the SBOE - but had a vague recollection of the debate.

"It took a very hard position against the United States for the fact that, historically, private ownership has been more important than saving the environment," Bernal said. "If you own some land with nice big trees you can cut them down and have a nice paper mill and to hell with the environment. That's kind of what happens in East Texas - the less control the better for conservative right-wing Republicans."

Bernal says he found no fault with the book, but he points out that the board is dominated 10 to 5 by Republicans and that "the members of the school board are more inclined to look at it politically than they are to look at the substance."

This was a very highly regarded, extensively peer-reviewed textbook that was rejected not because of its use of science but because the school board thought it took a position hostile to the oil and gas industry in Texas.

— Chris Finan
Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, a group that advocates for the freedom of expression in books, says that's partisan censorship: "Our basic argument is that this was a very highly regarded, extensively peer-reviewed textbook that was rejected not because of its use of science but because the school board thought it took a position hostile to the oil and gas industry in Texas. And that's not acceptable under the first amendment."

As with the recent health textbook issues `See "Taking the Sex out of Sex Ed," November 18-24, 2004`, the SBOE's rejection of Chiras' book carries a lot of weight because Texas is the second largest textbook market in the country. "I don't think you could go so far as to say, as Texas goes so goes the nation," says Finan, "but we are afraid this will have a chilling influence on publishers increasingly less willing to publish books that can't get adopted in Texas."

The Fifth Circuit appeal is based on concern that the district court judge dismissed the complaint without ordering fact-finding or discovery, which would likely have involved efforts to find out if TPF and CSE exercised undo influence on the board. If it is successful, Chiras v. Miller will return to the federal district court to be heard. Although he admits it will be tough to argue, Finan believes the appeal has a fair shot because it exemplifies such "an egregious intervention of political and religious ideology into the decisions of the state board of education.

"If the decision is allowed to stand, it will encourage further challenges based on ideology, and eventually textbooks will be watered down to the point where they don't teach anything except what's approved by the ideologically dominant faction in every state."

By Susan Pagani


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