Revision Marches to Social Agenda --by Scott Gold
Revision Marches to Social Agenda
By Scott Gold Times Staff Writer
SPRING, Texas - Outside the Spring Church of Christ, a large roadside sign
says a lot about the prevailing sensibility in this cordial town. It reads:
"Support New Testament Morality."
This is the home and powerbase of Terri Leo, a state Board of Education
member representing 2.5 million people in East Texas.
At the urging of Leo and several other members - who describe themselves as
Christian conservatives - the board this month approved new health textbooks
for high school and middle school students after publishers said they would
tweak references to marriage and sexuality.
One agreed to define marriage as a "lifelong union between a husband and a
wife." Another deleted words that were attacked by conservatives as
"stealth" references to gay relationships; "partners," for example, was
changed to "husbands and wives." A passage explaining that adolescence
brings the onset of "attraction to others" became "attraction to the
Leo said she pushed for the changes to combat the influence of "liberal New
York publishers" who by "censoring" the definition of marriage were
legitimizing same-sex unions.
Some education advocates have criticized the board's decision.
"This was never about defining marriage," said Samantha Smoot, president of
the Texas Freedom Network, an Austin-based nonprofit that opposes what it
calls religious "extremism." "It was an effort to get anti-gay propaganda in
Gilbert Sewall, director of the New York-based American Textbook Council -
an independent organization that reviews textbooks - also criticized the
Texas-approved books' promotion of abstinence-only sex education.
Such programs are "naive and confused," said Sewall, who described himself
as an "educational conservative."
Research, much of it conducted by the federal government, has raised a host
of questions about the effectiveness of abstinence programs in preventing
disease and pregnancy. Teenage girls who are taught in the programs do wait
longer before having sex, many experts believe, but are less likely to use
protection when they do - causing them to contract sexually transmitted
diseases at the same rates as those who have sex earlier.
"I have very little use for this religion-driven curriculum," Sewall said.
"This confuses sex and moral education."
Texas is the second-largest buyer of textbooks in the nation, after
California. Books purchased here wind up in classrooms across the nation,
because publishers are loath to create new editions for smaller states.
As a result, five social conservatives on the 15-member Texas board,
frequently joined by five more moderate Republicans, have enormous clout -
and often control the content used to teach millions of children.
Publishers have no choice but to heed many of the group's wishes, said Don
McLeroy, a dentist, Sunday school teacher and Texas Board of Education
"They've got to sell books," he said. "It's business."
Conservatives' efforts over the years to edit textbooks are legendary here.
In a nod to those who believe God created the Earth 6,000 years ago, a
sentence saying the ice age took place "millions of years ago" was changed
to "in the distant past." Descriptions of environmentalism have been
attacked as antithetical to free-enterprise ideals; a passage describing the
cruelty of slavery was derided as "overkill."
The pace of such efforts to alter curriculum is expected to increase because
Christian conservatives are "emboldened" by the Republican gains on election
day, Leo said.
The board's stance on the health texts, some observers said, speaks to a
critical factor in the GOP's recent success: a recognition by evangelical
conservatives that all politics is local.
The political ascendance of Christian conservatives in the 1980s and 1990s
was fueled by their coordinated effort to win seats on school boards, city
councils and other local bodies. A leader of the Christian Coalition said at
the time that he would be willing to train an evangelical to run for
Conservative forces began targeting the Texas Board of Education in the
1990s. Some, including Leo, ran for election unopposed.
Success at the local level has been used as a springboard to national power,
said Robert Simonds, president of California-based Citizens for Excellence
in Education; the group, which helped train the first wave of Christian
conservative candidates, recently has lobbied for the withdrawal of
Christians from the "secularist" public school system.
"It's like an athlete," Simonds said. "If you want to be a top-level
baseball or football player, first you have to learn to run. So we ran.
"The secular world has jumped on it, but only after seeing so much success
in Christian education and the like."
But Evan Wolfson, director of Freedom to Marry - a New York group that seeks
marriage rights for gays and lesbians - said that the conservatives' drive
to control local and state political boards might not look smart in the long
run if their agendas were seen as mean-spirited.
"It does not help our kids to use them as pawns for divisive social
agendas," he said. "It might be astute in the short term, but not in any
meaningful sense for our kids or our country."