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The Holy (Text)Book: Former SBOE Chair Don McLeroy’s Strange Return 

click to enlarge MARY TUMA
  • Mary Tuma

A perennial laughingstock of the nation, the Texas State Board of Education isn’t helping its—or the state’s—image as a politicized machine that churns out backwards, anti-science education to the young, impressionable minds of the future. In its latest round of nonsensical, regressive debate, the Board spent four hours of taxpayer time hearing arguments over whether or not creationism should be included in the classroom.

What caused the debate to resurface? In preparation for the adoption of new high school biology textbooks, to be chosen this November, the Board is tasked with nominating panelists to review books from a variety of publishers. While it seems like a simple exercise in selecting the most qualified, relevant candidates to an influential panel, the SBOE found a way to turn the process into national controversy, a familiar pattern among the 15-member body.

That’s because the panelists read like a who’s who in the pseudo-science sector. At the review table sit at least six creationists who come from deep backgrounds in peddling and even writing some of the seminal intelligent design literature. To give a sense of their ‘expert’ credentials, more than one reviewer is listed as a “Darwin Skeptic” in the Creation Science Hall of Fame. Some panelists can’t even tout a career in science at all (quasi or otherwise)—like the dietician and retired businessman on the team. The questionable reviewers are indicative of a lax adoption process—qualifications to join the “expert” panel are non-existent and efforts to heighten those requisites have repeatedly been denied by the Board’s conservative majority.

The panelists’ comments, obtained by watchdog organization Texas Freedom Network, reflect as much—recommendations include questioning climate change and the evolutionary fossil record, and a clear effort to insert Bible-based beliefs into textbooks: “I understand the National Academy of Science’s [sic] strong support of the theory of evolution. At the same time, this is a theory. As an educator, parent, and grandparent, I feel very firmly that ‘creation science’ based on Biblical principles should be incorporated into every biology book that is up for adoption,” wrote one reviewer overseeing books from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

The recommendations fly in the face of evidence from the National Academy of Sciences to NASA—not to mention the Constitution, as TFN points out. A 1987 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Edwards v. Aguillard, determined that teaching creationism in science classes at public schools is unconstitutional.

The comments didn’t sit well with SA’s relatively new SBOE board member Marisa Perez, who told the Current, “we wouldn’t choose anyone but an architect to review blueprints. We need to focus on fact and research and be mindful of who we select,” in regards to panelist qualifications.

“The idea of creationism versus evolution has been a divisive topic for such a long time. I think it’s just this conservative ploy to inject politics at the cost of children’s education and we need to put a stop to that,” said Perez, who is leading a charge to include more educators and school administrators in the process. While once elusive to the media, Perez has come out as a vocal opponent of the fundamentalist machinations of some of her fellow Board members, challenging the Board’s lack of transparency and possible ideological meddling when it comes textbook adoption.

“Regardless of our personal ideologies, we are in a role where we need to prepare our children for the future. When we review these books, we need to ultimately ask, ‘Is this going to prepare our kids for higher ed, for the workforce, and are they going to be competitive with those outside Texas?’ If the answer is no, it shouldn’t even be a topic of discussion,” she said.

The controversy came to a head during a public hearing last Tuesday where a train of nearly 60 Texans, from science educators and advocacy groups to proponents of creationism, testified before the board about the proposed changes. In the fact-based camp, Steven Schafersman, president of Texas Citizens for Science, described the creationist-backed recommendations as “pseudo-science, incorrect and illegal.” The suggestions would, “damage evolution instruction,” and “mislead and confuse children.” On the other side, folks like Gary Bennett, chairman of the Christian conservative group the Center for the Preservation of American Ideals, asked the board to include “intelligent design” and stick to “Biblical truth.”

As if the scene couldn’t get more embarrassing for the SBOE, in walks former Board chair Don McLeroy, who arguably stole the show.

McLeroy, a Young Earth creationist, showed up downright giddy to throw his two cents in, this time as a citizen and not a member. He flatly told his former colleagues to adopt the textbooks in order to, “strike a final blow to the teaching of evolution,” and “support the Bible.”

A Sunday school teacher and College Station dentist, McLeroy was appointed SBOE chair by Gov. Rick Perry in 2007 and is credited with helping take the Board to new heights in the culture wars battle. During the board’s 2009 debate over science curriculum, McLeroy supported maintaining the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution in the books. The conservative was defeated in the 2010 GOP primary by moderate Republican Thomas Ratliff, signaling an important tide shift in the board’s right-wing bloc makeup. But last week, a wave of the old guard came rolling back.

While McLeroy described some of the evolution instruction in the unedited books as “unsubstantiated” and “dogmatic” (pot, kettle?) he, unlike other creationist proponents, oddly considers the statements weak enough to support overall. Within the pages lie, “hidden gems just waiting to be mined by inquisitive students that could destroy evolution,” he said, referring to a supposed open door to evolution denial he slipped into the books as Board chair. But those loopholes don’t seem to actually exist—researchers with the University of Texas at Austin and Southern Methodist University found the books to affirm evolution as, “factual, well-established, mainstream science.”

The fight over evolution v. creationism is sadly nothing novel in the Texas textbook wars, but the former Board chair’s overt admission may be. In the end, McLeroy, clawing at his last shot to wield influence and now untethered to the careful religious boundaries one can’t overstep in public office, only helps put to rest any questions about his intention to inject creationism and religious dogma into textbooks during his infamous tenure on the SBOE.

In a line of questioning from the seat he once occupied, McLeroy gave further indication of his motives, with a nod to his more moderate successor “I’m just hoping a young creationist—a young Thomas Ratliff that’s a creationist—will sit there and say, ‘look, is this all the evidence they have? Well, maybe

God didn’t use evolution to do it.’”

“God help us,” uttered Ratliff under his breath.


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