Texas education board considers how middle schools teach climate change, sexuality as officials fight over library books
When the 15 members of the State Board of Education meet at its regular quarterly meeting this week, the elected group is expected to talk about how climate change and sexuality are taught to middle school students. It’s part of a regular process that takes place every eight years.
But there’s another topic not on the agenda that at least one board member says needs to be discussed, and that’s how much say the board has about what goes on a school’s library shelf.
Last Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott called on both the Texas Education Agency and the state education board for the removal of books with "overtly sexual" content in school libraries and to develop standards for what gets into libraries. The governor chimed in after state Rep. Matt Krause, a Fort Worth Republican, launched an investigation into certain school districts over the types of books students can access.
Ever since Krause published a list of around 850 books — most of which are about race and sexuality — and began asking districts if they had them on the shelves, the question of who polices nontextbooks available in schools has been unresolved. The Texas Association of School Boards says the decision is one local schools make.
But at least one state board of education member, Pat Hardy, who represents Tarrant and Parker counties as well as part of Dallas County, says the board needs more clarity on what role the board has in these decisions.
“Don't just throw the hot potato our way and say ‘Y’all take on that responsibility,’” she said.
Last week, Keven Ellis, education board chairperson, said Texas public school families "should have the reassurance that their children are not at risk of being confronted with pornographic and obscene material when they are in school."
But exactly what form that reassurance takes is unclear.
The state board typically works on standards that textbook publishers need to meet. But as they take up science and health standards this week, some similar topics that concern parents — and lately, lawmakers — will be surfacing, primarily about sexuality.
Last year, the board approved expanding the state’s seventh- and eighth-grade health and sex education curriculum to include forms of birth control beyond abstinence and education about sexually transmitted infection. However, the Republican majority board once again fell short of being more inclusive of the LGBTQ community, rejecting pushes to include lessons on sexual orientation, gender identity and consent.
At least one of the 13 textbooks that the State Board of Education will consider contains supplementary materials that touch on those topics — although teachers are not required to teach them. Once approved, they would then be available for school districts to adopt.
Dan Quinn, a spokesperson for the left-leaning Texas Freedom Network, said allowing this book to be adopted by school districts will give teachers a tool to talk about these topics.
“This vote really is a test for whether the state board of education in Texas has moved past the culture wars and the political circuses,” Quinn said.
Hardy said she’ll have a hard time voting for a textbook that includes things that aren’t in the state-approved standards. Hardy said parents have the option to teach their children about things that aren’t in the state-approved standards.
“The standards we chose reflect what we heard from parents as to what they wanted,” Hardy said.
The state board is also set to vote on new science standards for middle schoolers with the most attention being drawn to what eighth graders are learning about climate change, Quinn said.
The last time the state board adopted new science standards in 2009, the chair at the time said climate change was a “bunch of hooey.” Over a decade later, the current board made changes to its high school curriculum last year with climate change being addressed in some high school courses and now moves to do the same in middle schools.
Under the proposed eighth grade science guidelines, students are expected to learn how “natural events and human activity can impact global climate.” For Quinn and scientists, that’s where the problem lies. Human activity and natural events do, have and will continue to impact global climate. There is no “can,” he said.
Hardy said she likes the way the climate change standards are currently worded as she wants children to learn both the good and bad that come from fossil fuels — such as how it has elevated and supported the Texas economy.
On Nov. 4, climate scientists across the state sent a letter to the state board urging that they revise the proposed curriculum to reflect that human activity such as the release of greenhouse gases have affected the climate.
“Teaching about climate change doesn’t just prepare students to succeed in college-level work if they choose to further their education after high school,” wrote Andrew Dessler, professor of atmospheric sciences and the Reta A. Haynes chair in geosciences at Texas A&M University. “It also helps students become informed voters who understand the stakes and can make responsible decisions as we work together to find real solutions to the problem.”
Disclosure: Texas Association of School Boards and Texas Freedom Network have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.