AUSTIN - In a landmark vote that will shape the future education of millions of Texas schoolchildren, the State Board of Education on Friday approved new curriculum standards for U.S. history and other social studies courses that reflect a more conservative tone than in the past.
Split along party lines, the board voted 9-5 to adopt the new standards, which will dictate what is taught in all Texas schools and provide the basis for future textbooks and student achievement tests over the next decade.
Texas standards often wind up being taught in other states because national publishers typically tailor their materials to Texas, one of the biggest textbook purchasers in the country.
Approval came after the GOP-dominated board approved a new curriculum standard that would encourage high school students to question the legal doctrine of church-state separation - a sore point for social conservative groups who disagree with court decisions that have affirmed the doctrine, including the ban on school-sponsored prayer.
Before the final vote on the lengthy list of standards, the board's five Democrats criticized the Republican majority - primarily social conservatives - for injecting their political and religious views into the standards and giving short shrift to important minority figures in history.
Republicans called the standards a major step forward that will boost instruction in history, government and other social studies classes.
Regarding the complaint that Republicans and conservative ideology have been given more prominence, board member Don McLeroy, R-College Station, said the panel was trying to make up for the liberal-slanted curriculum now being used in schools.
"I think we've corrected the imbalance we've had in the past and now have our curriculum headed straight down the middle," said McLeroy, one of seven social conservatives on the board. "I'm very pleased with what we've accomplished.
Board Democrats accused the Republicans of a "cut-and-paste" job on the standards that included a flurry of late amendments undoing much of the work of teachers and academics who were appointed to review teams to draft the curriculum requirements last year.
"Here we are trying to approve standards for our children that will be used for years and we are being asked to approve all these last-minute cut-and-paste proposals," said Mary Helen Berlanga, D-Corpus Christi.
"I don't think any teacher would accept work like this," she said. "They would have thrown this paper in the trash. We've done an injustice to the children of this state."
Board member Mavis Knight, D-Dallas, called the proposal a "travesty."
"The board has made these standards political and had little academic discussion about what students need to learn," she said. "I am ashamed of what we have done to the students and teachers of this state."
Several Republicans left the board meeting room while Democrats laid out their objections to the document, but returned to defeat a Democratic effort to delay action on the proposal until July. One Republican, Bob Craig of Lubbock, supported the delay motion.
Board member Geraldine Miller, R-Dallas, was absent for both votes, on postponement and then final adoption.
Democratic lawmakers and other critics have suggested that when a new board of education takes office in January - after two social conservatives have been replaced by more moderate members - the board should reconsider the standards and make substantial changes.
Asked about that possibility, McLeroy said there is nothing to prohibit such a move, but he contended that "when people look at what we've done, they won't find much to change."
Most experts say it is unlikely that the board will revisit the social studies curriculum - unless Democrat Bill White wins the governor's race this fall. If that happened, White would appoint the education board chairman, who controls the panel's agenda and could put the issue back before the board next year.
Change would be unlikely if Gov. Rick Perry wins re-election. The last two board chairs appointed by Perry were part of the social conservative bloc - McLeroy and current Chairwoman Gail Lowe - who strongly support the new social studies requirements.
In addition, state Education Commissioner Robert Scott warned against further delays since the new standards are scheduled to be phased in to classroom instruction in the 2011-12 school year.
Board member Cynthia Dunbar, R-Richmond, another social conservative, opened Friday's board meeting with an invocation that referred to the U.S. and its history as a "Christian land governed by Christian principles."
"I believe no one can read the history of our country without realizing that the Good Book and the spirit of the Savior have from the beginning been our guiding geniuses," she said.
Before approving the standards on Friday, board members adopted scores of additional changes - including the restoration of Thomas Jefferson's name to a list of political philosophers that students will study in world history. Board members had come under criticism for removing Jefferson's name earlier this year though they pointed out that Jefferson would still be studied in other areas of the curriculum such as U.S. history and government.
Board members also adopted a standard that calls on high school students to "compare and contrast" the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment - barring establishment of a state religion - with the legal doctrine of church-state separation that emerged from U.S. Supreme Court rulings.
"We need to have students compare and contrast this current view of separation of church and state with the actual language in the First Amendment," said McLeroy, who like other social conservatives contends that separation of church and state was established in the law only by activist judges and not by the Constitution or Bill of Rights.
Knight led opposition to the proposal, saying it "implies there is no such thing as the legal doctrine of separation of church and state" despite numerous rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts that have firmly linked the requirement to the First Amendment.
The curriculum standards adopted by the GOP majority have a definite political and philosophical bent in many areas. For example, high school students will have to learn about leading conservative groups from the 1980s and 1990s in U.S. history - but not about liberal or minority rights groups that are identified as such.
Board members also gave a thumbs down to requiring history teachers and textbooks to provide coverage on the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy while the late President Ronald Reagan was elevated to more prominent coverage in the curriculum. In addition, the requirements place Sen. Joseph McCarthy in a more positive light in U.S. history despite the view of most historians who condemn the late Republican senator's tactics and his view that the U.S. government was infiltrated by Communists in the 1950s.