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April 20, 2014

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Texas board voting on textbook review rule changes

Updated Friday, Jan. 31, 2014 | 9:05 a.m.

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The State Board of Education will vote Friday on tightening rules for who can serve on review panels that scrutinize textbooks for Texas classrooms, suggesting that teachers or professors — not volunteers from the general public — be given priority for subjects in their areas of expertise.

Tension over the issue has been building for years in the country's second most populous state, where the textbook market is so large that changes can affect the industry nationwide. Critics complain that a few activists with religious or ideological objections have too much power to shape what the state's more than 5 million public school students learn.

The 15-member education board has the final say, and election defeats have weakened the board's bloc of social conservatives that made headlines when pushing for deemphasizing evolution in science books and requiring students to evaluate whether the United Nations undermined U.S. sovereignty.

But board members are still influenced by the citizen review panels, which also have been dominated in recent years by social and religious conservatives who object to evolution and climate change entries in science textbooks.

The catalyst for revamping those panels came last summer when two ardent evolution skeptics — a nutritionist and a chemical engineer — caused a tumultuous fight by challenging a proposed biology textbook that didn't include information on creationism.

"We don't need lay people making these highly specific and technical decisions on these books," Thomas Ratliff, a Republican board member pushing for the new mandate, said during the board's meeting in November.

Ratliff said Friday that another proposed rule would allow the board, with a majority vote, to have panels of outside experts scrutinize any objections raised by the citizen panels as a further check on their power.

Though modest, the changes could have a major impact in Texas, where Republican Gov. Rick Perry bragged during his 2011 presidential campaign that students were taught both evolution and creationism. The previous year, the education board approved social studies curriculum in which children learned that the words "separation of church and state" were not in the Constitution and were asked to evaluate whether the United Nations undermines U.S. sovereignty.

All the proposed changes deal only with textbook reviews and won't stop larger clashes by education board members about textbooks. They also won't affect panels that vet proposed curriculums.

One proposal would require all portions of proposed books to be reviewed by at least two panel members, so that a single volunteer couldn't raise objections. Other rules would let panelists submit majority and minority reports about proposed materials to the board, and restrict board members' contact with reviewers so as not to unfairly influence them.

A more ambitious plan that would have allowed the education board to remove panelists for inappropriate behavior failed Wednesday night on a 9-6 vote.