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The Education Censors
By Tom Hilliard

Religious conservatives in Texas are pressuring textbook publishers to conform to their agenda—which is changing schoolbooks everywhere

Want to avoid getting a sexually transmitted disease? Here’s some advice from Holt Lifetime Health, a health-education textbook that just entered the market: “The most effective way to protect yourself from STDs is to remain abstinent until marriage.”

Holt is not alone in delivering a “Just say no” message to sex-obsessed teenagers. Starting in September 2005, Capital Region health-education teachers who purchase new textbooks will have their choice of three nationally distributed textbooks. All three adhere to the so-called “abstinence-only” curriculum, which advises students to abstain from sex until marriage and avoids any mention of contraception or safer-sex options.

New York state has never endorsed the abstinence-only approach and probably never will. Study after study has judged abstinence-only an educational disaster, leading to increased rates of unprotected sex, which generally boosts teen pregnancy and STD infection rates [“Ab staining From the Truth,” Newsfront, Dec. 9, 2004]. Critics of abstinence-only methods say a better model is the so-called “abstinence first” approach, which advises students to remain abstinent but also teaches them about contraception and family planning.

Yet abstinence-only is about to become the nation-al standard for health- education textbooks. How did this happen? Who decided, based on what instructional and scientific criteria?

For answers, we must travel 1,850 miles to the Austin headquarters of the Texas State Board of Education. Each fall, the Texas Board of Education considers a new crop of textbooks for adoption. The 15 elected members of this powerful group can vote to approve a textbook as “conforming” to Texas state law, which means the state will pay for local school districts to use the textbook, or to reject it, which effectively shuts the textbook out of the $400 million Texas market.

Publishers compete energetically to win the Texas Board of Education’s adoption sweepstakes. In their strenuous efforts, publishers break bread and cut deals with the most powerful political players—not teachers, not school board officials, not parents or government officials, but rather Texas’ community of religious conservatives, whose support or opposition can make or break a textbook adoption.

Consider the fate of two health-education textbooks submitted for adoption in 1994. Holt Rinehart Winston proposed a modestly worded abstinence-first textbook. Texas conservatives sharply disapproved. Even worse, the textbook used line drawings to show girls how to conduct a self-examination for breast cancer. The notion of taxpayer-funded pictures of breasts drove conservatives wild with rage. The Holt textbook went down to defeat.

Glencoe McGraw-Hill’s entry, on the other hand, received near unanimous approval. A 1995 memo by Glencoe regional vice president David Irons explained why: “Glencoe Health . . . does not contain a discussion about alternatives to abstinence . . . does not promote a Pro-Homosexual lifestyle or an Anti-Family agenda [and] is the only health text endorsed by the Texas Council for Family Values, the American Family Association . . . and Concerned Women for America.” Glencoe Health went on to take 60 percent of the Texas market. McGraw-Hill subsequently promoted Irons.

Mindful of the 1994 experience, progressive activists prepared in 2004 for another harsh battle over sex education. But they had reckoned without the textbook executives’ keen instinct for self-preservation. “The books came precensored,” says Steve Schafersman, president of Texans for Science. “Textbook manufacturers can tell which way the wind is blowing far ahead of time. They capitulated in advance.”

Holt’s new textbook corrects the previous edition’s ideological missteps. For example, Holt Lifetime Health provides a list of eight tips for preventing STD infection. The list starts with “Practice abstinence” and moves on to such helpful tips as “Get plenty of rest,” “Respect yourself,” and “Go out as a group.” But the list omits Holt’s recommendation from the 1994 edition: “Using a latex condom properly during sexual intercourse reduces the risk of getting an STD during sex.” Since six out of 10 students have sexual intercourse prior to graduating high school, this might have been useful advice. The other two publishers also submitted abstinence-only textbooks. (Glencoe declined to supply a copy of its textbook, while Thomson Delmar declined to comment for this story.)

Holt spokesman Rick Blake argues that his company made a reasonable decision to put contraceptive information into a separately available supplement. Blake notes that supplements can be introduced without review by the Texas Board of Education. “Many school districts require parental consent to give their kids sexual education,” explains Blake. “If detailed information about contraception is in the health textbook, you can’t use it. The school district takes it out of the kids’ hands.” It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Holt’s dilemma. If conservative school districts in Texas and other southern states boycott a health-education textbook because it includes contraceptive information, the textbook company will lose millions—even if its book had won statewide adoption.

Supplements are not loved by all teachers, though. A health educator in San Antonio (who asked that her name not be used) says supplements rarely meet her needs: “You can’t find them when you need them. The educator before you may have used them and put them in a box, or the students didn’t return them, or they fall apart after a year or two. They disappear very quickly.” She also points out that many school districts do not allow teachers to teach from supplements, which would seem to defeat the point. Finally, there’s cost. According to prices on the Holt Web site, providing this supplement to a class of 30 would cost almost $500. That’s a heavy price for a school district to pay for an invitation to community controversy.

Religious conservatives on the Texas Board of Education, having received abstinence-only textbooks without even having to ask, proceeded to make further demands on other red-meat social issues. At the final hearing in November, the three textbook companies agreed to insert new language affirming that marriage is a “lifelong union between a husband and a wife”(although Holt asserted that it would not use the language outside Texas).

Tellingly, the Texas Board of Education imposed the new demands in the wake of the Nov. 4 election, which sharply raised the political prominence of religious conservatives in Texas. “Board members run for reelection,” crowed board member Terri Leo to a Baptist news service. “The huge victory on Tuesday factored into helping me garner the votes I needed.”

The surging influence of the religious right in Texas will influence the content of textbooks nationwide, including right here in the Capital Region. “Textbooks are a national market,” notes William Bennetta, president of the American Textbook League and a longtime independent textbook reviewer. “The books that kids in Albany read have been diddled to conform to the tastes of people in Texas.”

Texas is one of 21 states that use a statewide textbook adoption process, thereby wielding the power to rewrite textbooks to meet their priorities. “When you create a new edition,” says Steve Driesler, president of the American Association of Publishers’ Schools Division, “you’re talking about tens of millions of dollars of investment, and obviously the publisher wants to recoup that as soon as possible.” Driesler notes that a big state adoption enables a publisher to recoup its investment within a year. So most publishers hold off on writing new editions until that particular subject comes up on the adoption calendar of the largest state-adoption states.

California’s market size outstrips that of Texas, yet Texas has become far more powerful. Most state-adoption states are in the South, a result of banding together after the Civil War to pressure educational publishers to supply them with pro-Confederate history textbooks. Officials in these states treat Texas as the lead steer, often adopting and purchasing the same textbooks that have been adopted and purchased in Texas. Also, California adopts locally at the high school level, leaving Texas as the only big player in that market.

And New York? Even though Texas and New York have roughly equivalent student populations, New York exercises little influence over the writing of textbooks. That’s because ours is one of 29 “open states” that allow individual school districts (and in some cases individual schools) to choose their own textbooks. “If New York City is [adopting textbooks] on a different schedule from Albany, we can’t do a different textbook for each locality,” says Driesler. He insists that publishers do customize for localities, but mostly through the teacher’s edition or supplements rather than the edition that students read.

The implications are as profound as the math is simple. There are four national textbook companies, and only three publish health-education textbooks. All three wrote new editions for Texas adoption in 2004, and all three textbooks are fervently abstinence-only, although Holt rather dubiously claims that its decision had “nothing to do with the Texas adoption.” Without public debate of any kind, the national editions of all three health-education textbooks became exemplars of the abstinence-only approach.

And conservative influence does not begin or end with health education. Consider the changes made to these 2002 textbooks adopted by the Texas Board of Education:

Evolution: In Our World Today: People, Places and Issues (Glencoe/McGraw-Hill), a passage noting that “glaciers formed the Great Lakes millions of years ago” was altered to read “in the distant past” after a conservative reviewer attacked the phrase as merely “the opinion of some scientist who support [sic] the theory of evolution.”

Islam: A passage in World Explorer: People, Places and Cultures (Prentice Hall) noting that the Quran teaches “the importance of honesty, honor, giving to others and having love and respect for . . . families” was deleted after a conservative reviewer branded it “more propaganda” for Islam.

Global warming: Prentice Hall dropped an entire section on global warming from World Explorer after a reviewer charged that it would “prepare students to look to the government for solutions to problems.”

Since textbook companies generally make one national edition, New York school districts are likely to find language of this kind quietly added to or dropped from the latest editions of their textbooks. The ghostly exacto knives of conservative ideologues will be invisible to even the most suspicious teachers, unless they take hours of their day to pore over Texas Board of Education testimony.

Parents or stu- dents vaguely expect their schools to select textbooks that represent the state of the art in their particular subject areas. Ironically, however, the textbooks available for selection have almost certainly been vetted chapter by chapter and line by line for adherence to a right-wing ideology that most New Yorkers do not share.

Diane Ravitch, author of The Language Police, the most stinging recent indictment of textbook censorship, has advocated abolishing the state-adoption system entirely. Ravitch’s proposal could substantially reduce interest-group interference with the textbook adoption system. But religious conservatives are unlikely to allow Texas to voluntarily disarm. Indeed, a bill now pending in the Texas Legislature would vastly expand the Texas Board of Education’s power to demand content changes to remedy such undesirable qualities as “viewpoint discrimination.”

New York state could reclaim its market power by consolidating local school adoption systems into a statewide one. But the Texas case study shows what unintended side effects can strike. As the stakes for each adoption rise, the lobbies start circling and the press releases start flying. Can New York fight the influence of Texas without becoming Texas?


To find out more:

New Yorkers interested in learning more about Texas’s messy textbook adoption system can get the progressive perspective from the Texas Freedom Network (www.tfn. org) or Texans For Science (, or the conservative perspective from Educational Analysts (www.textbookre Or you can go straight to the source: the Texas Board of Education (

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