Brill: Let’s mess with Texas

Education in America

President Bartlett leans into the lectern: “Your state of Florida received $12.6 billion in federal aid last year,” he explains to Governor Rob Ritchie in their fictional debate of 2002. “Can we have it back please?”

In one more example of real life imitating television’s “The West Wing,” President Obama is poised to throw down this gauntlet against another governor perverting the idea of federalism: Rick Perry of Texas. As Josh Lyman cheered, “Game on.”

The Lone Star state has dominated the past few weeks of education news, nearly overshadowing the president’s plan for overhauling No Child Left Behind. On March 12, the state Board of Education voted largely along party lines to change social studies standards to reflect Christianist, conservative ideology, often at odds with vast historical consensus. In other words, Texas students will no longer be getting the facts of history, but rather the radical right’s interpretation.

Texas’s curriculum, which will shape the content of the state’s textbooks and yearly assessments, should startle anybody with a basic understanding of American history. One provision to the new standards, for example, aims to legitimize McCarthyism by pointing out cases of Soviet agents such as Alger Hiss and Klaus Fuchs. These spies — caught and prosecuted by the Truman administration in the late 1940s — of course had nothing to do with McCarthy’s reckless red-baiting of the mid-1950s, which resulted in the conviction of exactly zero people.

On another level, however, the school board’s vote might snap the reasonable center of this country into action.

As alarming as Texas’s new ideology-based history lessons are, the United States faces the scarier reality of math and English curricula that don’t prepare children for college or professional careers. Because the No Child Left Behind Act left standards and testing up to the states then penalized states for low test scores, the result has been a race to the bottom for our federalist patchwork of state curricula.

In Mississippi, for example, the percentage of fourth graders in 2003 proficient in reading, according to the well-esteemed National Assessment of Educational Process was just 18 percent. And how many passed the NCLB-mandated state test? A staggering 87 percent. In mathematics, only 17 percent were proficient on NAEP, while 74 percent passed the state test.

All of this is why 48 governors and state education chiefs came together more than a year ago to create voluntary, “common-core standards,” a basic roadmap for what American students should learn, and when they should learn it. A draft was announced March 10, and if adopted, these standards would signify perhaps the greatest change in American education since the founding of public schools in the late 1800s. Though it had no hand in crafting them, the Obama administration has heavily promoted the common standards, making their adoption virtually required for states to win federal dollars in from Race to the Top fund.

Which brings us back to our favorite state in the union. Perry, joined only by Alaska, said no to the hundreds of millions of dollars his state might have won. “I firmly believe,” he wrote in a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, “that states like Texas … are best suited to determine the curriculum standards for their students — not the federal government.” In point of fact, the federal government did not “determine the curriculum standards.” Rather, governors and state education chiefs crafted a minimum core of standards with the help of education experts they hired.

Perry’s intransigence is not surprising, given his suggestion a year ago in front of Tea Party activists that Texas would be justified in seceding from the union if “Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people.” Duncan and Obama have upped the ante. As part of the administration’s proposal for revamping No Child Left Behind, they asked Congress in February to make the adoption of the common-core standards mandatory if states wish to receive federal Title I funding.

In fiscal year 2007, the federal government gave Texas $4.5 billion, about 10 percent of the state’s education budget, and almost five times the average amount given to other states. If Texas won’t go along with common-sense, rigorous standards that governors across the nation can agree on, President Obama will ask, as he should, “Can we have it back, please?”

After all, the common-core standards represent the rational center of American politics. The Chamber of Commerce and the nation’s largest teachers’ union support them; 48 governors from Georgia’s Sonny Purdue to Massachusetts’s Deval Patrick support them. If Perry wants to deprive Texas children of rigor and reform to score political points, fine. But there’s no reason the rest of the nation must support Texas’s radical right-wing agenda. Game on.


  • TD `12

    Everyone should read the NY Times Magazine article “How Christian Were the Founders” that was published about a month ago. Apparently Texas also wants to add Moses to the AP US History curriculum as a Founding Father. Might as well start teaching Creationism while we’re at it.

  • What’s worse

    Sure, it’s bad that students graduate from high school not knowing the three branches of our government, but what’s worse is that now they’ll know that some of our founders were Christian. That’s scary. I fear for our religious liberty now.

  • Yale 08

    This is hilarious satire.

    Well done Sam! You’ve nailed the liberal viewpoint perfectly!

    I LOL’d.

  • Hurr

    Willfully misinforming children of historical fact, by omission or otherwise, is reprehensible. As a poster on another site regarding Texas’s horrifying step backwards so poignantly remarked, this move is “building a bridge into the 16th century”. Absolutely terrifying. It is almost unbearable to sit and read about this happening. I hold out the hope that we are all being trolled.

  • anon

    Perry’s secession comments were nothing more than political grandstanding–trying to gain appeal with the base. He was at risk at losing the Republican nomination to KBH and needed something to distinguish himself from KBH and her DC ties.

  • Sam Brill

    In response to #2, as I wrote,

    “As alarming as Texas’s new ideology-based history lessons are, the United States faces the scarier reality of math and English curricula that don’t prepare children for college or professional careers.”

  • Tanner

    Has anyone every looked at a text book and believed it held everything you’ll ever need to know? They are basic little crib notes to hopefully open your mind for greater exploration. The amount of money spent is one reason are education system gets so little in return.

  • Yale 08

    Didn’t several liberal media outlets recently acknowledge that McCarthy was right about a lot of people?

    The gov’t was loaded with Communists.

    But I wouldn’t want to spoil any liberal fantasies around here…

  • hm

    Yale08, I’m increasingly convinced that you’re a deranged hobo who somehow acquired internet access. The intellectual quality of your comments is roughly equivalent to the paranoid rantings of a man convinced the government is spying on his cardboard box.

  • saybrook997

    Don’t worry. I’m from Texas. No child in large, liberal public schools is able to read the textbooks. Do you know how pathetic teaching is in public teacher union schools?

    Since you can write and read English, you obviously went to a boarding school, private prep school, or small, at least upper-middle class, public school district.

    And you focus on paragraphs in textbooks? If only we paid govt. employee union teachers more and increased their unfunded retirements? Calif. and NY could declare bankruptcy sooner, and their students mostly still will not read, write, graduate or be able to apply to Yale. At least, register them to vote Democratic, with some ballot help.

    Martin Luther King said that education was the great civil rights issue. No one listened. Some students were bused; lousy teachers were tenured for life; and public school districts were destroyed. Your move.

  • Jack Bauer

    You may be right about McCarthy, but admit that sometimes being a little racist does help catch terrorists.

  • Jordon Walker

    As a product of one of the excellent public schools in Texas I feel I must defend my beloved state. Although history books are irrefutably slanted, they mostly represented education that is presented in the early years of development. Some would argue that this makes the new standards all the more pernicious but the exact opposite is true.
    At the high school level, particular AP classes, the textbooks offered are largely voluntarily standardized to comply with the educational standards of the college board’s advanced placement program. As a result, the Texas legislatures new guidelines will not fundamentally alter the history that will be taught in the latter years of high school, and this point is key. It is during the latter portion of our high school career that we begin to broach out and challenge the norms that we are taught as children, and having to, undoubtedly, relearn certain aspects of history is sure to galvanize further suspicion of other supposed facts in one’s life. The new standards will result in individuals begin the process of new discover and challenge of orthodoxy at a younger age and, as a consequence, will be more beneficial for the intellectual maturity of Texas children, even if it jeopardizes reality for a portion of their educational career.

    On a more rebellious note, y’all can keep y’all’s yankee education because we in the great state of Texas are doing just fine without it :P

  • Recent Alum

    History lessons at 99% of public schools in the U.S. are just as or more “ideology-based”, but since this ideology is in line with Sam Brill’s, I suppose this is not a cause for concern.

  • Yale 08


    And trust of a massive bureaucracy is healthy?

    Color me insane then.